Push the right button and my toes go numb, sometimes at home, sometimes in the car while waiting at a stop sign. I wish I had x‑ray eyes to look inside my leg, to magnify the disconnected nerve endings, to lasso them back into position, into submission.
It’s early September and my ennui is epic. Temps rising into the mid 90s my smartphone says. I can feel my pulse pounding under the sheen of sweat on my neck. Between my toes something is crawling. When I scratch there’s nothing there but the illusion, my peculiar neuropathy at work, the result of a hiking accident a couple of years ago.
When my husband and I were young we lived in a tiny house on an alley. Our Korean next-door neighbor exposed a brick wall and unleashed a torrent of bedbugs. As I scratch at the phantom insect crawling between my toes, I can smell the sickly sweet odor of squashed bed bug. All these years later I can still can feel the itch and sting of the bite.
I rinse a zucchini. The big yellow blossoms have gone by. I pick only the male flowers. The females are the ones with the bulge, the plant’s ovaries that turn into vegetables after the flowers have withered and dropped off. Last week I stuffed the male flowers with goat cheese. They were delicious, deep-fried. The female vegetables are dark green and thick as my wrists. I slice the rounds paper thin, sauté them in butter and oil and sprinkle them with the little bit of shiso left after the groundhogs’ most recent garden raid.
I ignore the itch between my toes and scratch my scalp.
The zucchini slices are so thin they’ve become translucent as they cook. I lift one with the spatula and admire the skin, a deep green ring.
From the living room, my husband calls in, “Smells good.”
It’s been so tempting to give him the boot. Our relationship has turned into an eggshell, destined to break. I spend hours trying to root out the problem, trying to understand why everything he does annoys me. There’s the bowl of unpopped popcorn kernels he left in the sink last night after we watched some dumb movie. His choice. And his insistence that those old road runner cartoons, in which the poor bird runs back and forth barking, “beep, beep, beep,” are funny.
When we were young I thought he was handsome. Now his leaness is skeletal. My curves have turned to fat and to be perfectly honest; I resent that. My hair has gone thin where it’s turned gray on top. His is still thick. But what was once black and glossy is now dull as soot.
“How’s the itch?” he calls in.
I give the vegetables another stir.
The Balm of Gilead
I was hiking with him when I fell. We were lost in Dogtown, wandering the ups and downs of the summer woods. He didn’t think we needed a map. The last time we were there, it was winter. There were no leaves on the trees. We could see where we were going from hilltop to hilltop. When I fell, the trees were in full leaf. We were locked in for hours until a guy and his dog came along. He had a GPS. As we started down another hill I tripped over a root and fell.
I cross the kitchen and stop at the doorway to flex my tingling toes.
“Dinner ready?” he says without looking up from his phone.
My rage. Dogtown. Hundreds of acres of glacial rock and trees where the displaced poor during the great depression camped out. Some civic-minded rich man hired a stonecutter to carve uplifting mottos into the boulders buried in the woods. Never try, never win. Loyalty. Keep out of debt. If work stops, values decay. Big bold sans serif letters were filled in with black paint, so the poor couldn’t miss them.
Our relationship has always ebbed and flowed. When he ebbs, I flow. Right now I’d like to set his dinner on the table and flow out the door. But then he holds his phone up.
“See this,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “A human skull paved with diamonds. What do you think?”
Joan Wilking’s short fiction has been published in The Atlantic, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Barcelona Review, Other Voices, The Mississippi Review, Ascent, The MacGuffin, Hobart and many other literary journals and anthologies online and in print. Her story, “Deer Season,” was a finalist for the The Chicago Tribune’s 2010 Nelson Algren Short Story Prize. Her short story, “Clutter,” received a special mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Anthology. “The Real Story,” “Letitia Comes Clean” and “Smoked” are in the most recent editions of Clackamas, The MacGuffin and Elm Leaves. Her book, Mycology, won the 2016 Wild Onion Novella Prize. It will be published in April of 2017 by Curbside Splendor Publishing. Spring, summer and fall she lives and works at the edge of the earth overlooking Plum Island Sound in Ipswich, Massachusetts. January, February and March she spends among the orange trees in Ojai, California.