I found it in the desert. I saw Fran driving her truck loaded down with dead branches, and then I saw her pitch the stuff off the side of a shallow arroyo. I was out for a walk before the heat had a chance to start baking the trail.
The toe was severed clean, like a surgeon had sliced it with a very sharp saw. It was the big toe, with a yellowed nail and a hairy toe knuckle. The bone was surrounded by meat that had dried to raw flesh, rough to the touch and darkened on the edges like jerky. It rested on the sand next to a tree limb with leaves already curling from the approaching heat.
I liked Fran. I did handyman work for her and her husband Oliver. She always told me I was too skinny. I’d be digging in the garden and she’d take my dirty hand in her frail, spider-webbed one, and tell me to stop and eat. Sometimes she would forget my name, but I never minded. She was in her eighties, after all.
An ant found the toe, and began chewing on the fresh end near the nail.
I took it to Tom, the local sheriff. I figured a severed toe was worth reporting.
Tom didn’t touch it at first, just sat with his arms crossed. “And where did you say you found this? You’ll have to take me. There could be a whole body up there.”
“I don’t think there’s a body.”
I don’t know why I lied to Tom. It just sort of happened that I took him to a different trail. Tom knelt down and looked at the vague footprints and took a sample of dirt.
Fran had me moving paving stones that afternoon. Oliver—in his eighties himself—waited until the shade had found the front steps before he ventured out. He was dressed as usual in a white button down shirt and high-waisted pants with suspenders. The cane was new, though.
“Did you hurt your leg?” I asked.
“Just an accident,” Oliver said.
He had one shoe on. A white sock covered the other foot, and I could see the bulky outline of a bandage underneath.
Fran poked her head out, and I smelled pot roast. “Chris doesn’t want you to start in on your stories, dear. He’s hungry. Come and eat.”
The potatoes were buttery and the carrots tender, but all I could think about was the big toe.
We finished dinner and Oliver and I sat on the porch while Fran cleaned up the kitchen.
“How did you lose your big toe?” I asked.
Oliver gripped his cane hard. “Did Fran tell you? I didn’t think she’d remember.”
“I saw her dumping tree branches and I found the toe. I gave it to Tom.”
“Why would you do that? What in the hell will Tom do with a thing like that?” Oliver asked. His hands shook.
Fran screamed then something metal clattered to the floor in the kitchen. I rushed in and saw her holding her arm, blood everywhere, and her carving knife at her feet. Oliver limped to her and pressed a kitchen towel into her wound. She cried and fought against him and then Oliver began to cry. It was a bizarre scene: Fran seemed not to be in pain from her cut, but terrified of her husband of sixty years, straining against his arms so that the veins showed in her neck.
“Honey, quiet, it’s me,” Oliver was shouting over her screams, tears on his cheeks.
After about two minutes, Fran stopped moving and stared at Oliver as if he had just walked in for dessert. Her expression was almost happy. We bandaged her arm and took her to the bedroom, where Oliver sat with her until she fell asleep. He led me out to the front porch. “If you tell Tom or anyone she cut off my toe with the electric pruning shears, I will lop something off you myself.”
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Could be Alzheimer’s or some type of dementia. That’s what our doctor in Pasadena said.” Oliver paused. “The doctor thinks she’ll pass soon.”
“Pass?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. She was active. She’d worked in the garden all day.
“She’s moved those paving stones three times now. She forgets. She gets mad.”
“How about a nursing home? All these accidents…”
“That wouldn’t work.” I should have written down the words Oliver said next: “Every moment with her is a gift. Sometimes around dusk she starts crying and can’t stop, and the nights she knows me, I hold her until she falls asleep. The nights she doesn’t know me, I sit outside the bedroom door until she cries herself to sleep. When she’s out for the night, I sit here and drink beer and feel as lonely as anybody has ever felt. When she passes away—and she will, soon—I’ll sit on this god damn porch and drink beer and feel lonelier.”
I picked a time of day I thought they would like, when the stars were starting to come out. Tinder-dry branches formed a pile up ahead. I took the paper bag marked EVIDENCE out of my backpack. Tom had looked at me funny when I asked for the toe, but he hadn’t done anything to investigate the case and probably wrote me off as just a weird kid wanting a souvenir. The toe was defrosted from its time in the freezer at the sheriff’s office and almost exactly as I had found it a year before. I placed it on the sand near the branches, and said a silent prayer for Oliver and Fran, dead within two weeks of each other. I don’t know why, but it felt right to let the ants pick the bone clean and take Oliver’s toe piece by piece to their hill.
© Copyright 2012 Windi Padia. All rights reserved.
Windi Padia grew up wanting to be a biologist and is now in the Education section of a state parks and wildlife agency, where humans make much more fascinating subjects. One of her essays was published in Torn: True Stories of Modern Motherhood.