Joan Wilking ~ Neuropathy Trilogy


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.