"Joe's Toe or the Day I Discovered My Husband is a Pimp" by Jackie Goodwin
The morning was cold and the sky was just turning pink. Joe drove us to the hospital. He was nervous because of his toe surgery and didn’t want the added stress of being my passenger. We didn’t say much. Just the usual, there’s a dog-on-the-side-of-the- road, or that-guy-should’ve-signaled type of conversation. Joe was food and caffeine-free because of the anesthesia so he was grumpy and sleepy. Sneezy too. The man expelled the loudest sneezes. One time he detonated a car alarm, another time our cat ended up on the ceiling. But his sneezes were unremarkable that morning.
He’d had some surgeries in the past. Most innocuous. But still, I didn’t like the situation. Hospitals made me uncomfortable. The corridors confused me. The tiny rooms and semi-naked people and televisions addled my brain. Plus my vision and hearing were overwhelmed by my nose. My sense of smell is very delicate, even more so after the accident, and if I didn’t recognize the odor, I couldn’t keep my mind from trying to identify it. Of course I always imagined the worst. Nothing smelled good in a hospital. Nothing.
The entire procedure would take a couple of hours but it was always longer than they told you. So for solidarity’s sake I didn’t eat breakfast that morning. That meant while Joe was under the knife I’d be starving and nauseated. A combination whose only cure was blueberry pancakes. When I told my friend Glen about the situation he agreed to meet me for breakfast at a coffee shop near the hospital.
The car sputtered and chugged its way into the hospital parking lot and Joe popped the emergency brake like he always did, even though there wasn’t a hill in sight. “Let’s go,” was all he said. We got out and headed toward the big brick building with signs and sliding glass doors all around.
The moment we walked in, Joe calmed down. He liked the order and anonymity of hospitals and had complete faith in doctors.
“Kathy,” Joe said to the blond at the entrance desk, real friendly, like they’d gone to high school together. “This is my wife Gina.” They both laughed. I missed the joke so I stood there with my hands in my pockets and a closed-lipped smile. Joe leaned close to her and whispered something and they laughed again. “An old story,” Joe’s eyes didn’t meet mine when he said this. He took the clipboard from Kathy and we sat down on the orange plastic chairs that were bolted to the wall.
After awhile they called Joe’s name and what looked like a chubby twelve-year-old in purple scrubs led him into the back. We both knew that I could accompany him and we both knew that I wouldn’t. I wondered how long I should wait before calling Glen. The Price is Right was on the television on the wall in front of me. I’d leave after Mindy from Mobile, Alabama won or lost her bid on a home theater system with surround sound and an unholy number of bells and whistles. I was rooting for Mindy. She was chunky and had bad teeth. I figured she was either too poor or too afraid to go to the dentist. Maybe both. A fine home theater system would be just the thing to keep her feeling good. She’d never have to leave the house again.
Joe and I don’t own a TV anymore. I don’t want one and he gets his fill of the tube at his job as nighttime security guard at the Tri-Pole Motel in Barrington. It’s located next to the three sign poles that mark the interstate. A disgusting place, he told me, hourly rates and all that. A real classy joint. Me, I have to watch when a television is on. They’re Hippocratic or something, and I lose track of time.
I gave our TV to my sister after Joe came home from a three-day hunting trip and found me wearing the same clothes and sitting in the same place on the couch as the day he left. I didn’t remember what I’d been watching when he dug the remote out from between the couch cushions and hit the off button. Nooo, I wanted to cry and beg. Suddenly I had the worst headache of my life–worse than the time I was doing tequila shots in Baltimore and woke up in Atlanta–worse than after the car accident. Did you eat? Did you drink? Did you feed the fucking cat? You must have. This place smells like a shithole. Joe was right. The house did smell bad. I hadn’t scooped the litter box in three days. I smelled bad too. It wasn’t a good thing when you could smell yourself. But, I couldn’t remember anything, so I couldn’t disagree. Still, my feelings were hurt. I must have eaten or drunk something. I wasn’t hungry. I must have used the toilet because I hadn’t soiled myself. I didn’t say a word to Joe. Just got up and threw myself down on our bed–didn’t get undressed or under the covers. Right before I fell asleep I heard the front door slam.
I woke up the next day, Joe snoring next to me, and showered then drank some coffee and cleaned the litter box. After that I threw the TV onto a wheelie cart and pushed it over the ruts and bumps we called the front yard, then jammed it into the backseat of my Corolla. Corrie was her name. I could swear the cat was giving me the thumbs up as I backed out of the driveway. He was one of those with the extra toes, a pterodactyl or something. I knew Joe wouldn’t care that I gave the TV away. He liked to work on model train sets in his spare time. I drove to my sister’s trailer over on Somerset and banged on the dented screen door that had no screen. I’m not sure why she keeps it, probably too lazy to take it off the hinges.
My nephew Petey opened the door wearing pajama bottoms, no shirt and a wool cap. “Aunt Gina,” he said. He was one of those twelve-year-old white boys who thought they were gangstas because of their clothes and taste in music. But he wasn’t a bad kid. Just in a stage, at least I hoped. Didn’t know many gangstas named Petey, and didn’t know what my sister was thinking with that one. Maybe the Little Rascals?
“Hey Petey. Where’s your mom?”
“Sleeping,” he mumbled.
I put my hand on the door and he moved out of the way to let me in. “Why the cap?” I asked.
“It’s fucking cold in here,” he answered.
I glared at him with the meanest Auntie eyes I could muster. Petey probably thought I was going to hassle him for the language. “Then put on a fucking shirt and pair of socks ya’ genius.” He gave me a smile that proved it’d been a long time since his teeth had contact with a toothbrush.
“Did you eat yet?” He shook his head. “All right, this is what we’re going to do.” I told him to get some clothes and shoes on etc., pronto and meet me at the car. I didn’t wake my sister, Dina.
I know. Twins, Gina and Dina. Thank God we weren’t quartuplets or whatever they’re called. Then we could have been Nina and Tina. By the time Petey came out to the car I’d managed to unwedge the television from behind the front passenger seat and leaned it against the open car door.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“A can of spam,” I answered, “What do you think it is?”
“I know it’s a TV. I mean why is it here?”
“It’s a gift from me to you.”
“Does it work?”
“Petey, I am insulted by that question. Why would your favorite aunt in the world give you a broken TV for a gift?”
Petey didn’t answer.
“Okay,” I admitted. “It’s old and used but it works perfectly and it’s from me to you. Let’s get it inside and see if we can set it up.”
The extra cable hookup was still in his room. That may have been the only thing his bastard father Jimbo left behind. I tried to ignore the smell of cheese doodles, dirty feet and other unidentifiable odors as we heaved the set onto the desk. “It’s cable ready,” I told him. “Just screw that white cable into the back of the set and get a shirt on. Then let’s get out of here.” I didn’t add, “Before I puke.” The smell was that bad.
“Where’s the remote?” Petey asked.
“I forgot it. We’ll swing by my place and get it after breakfast.” I walked into the kitchen to leave a note for Dina in case she woke up before we got back. I thought of making it into a ransom note, but looked around at the dirty dishes and old newspapers lying around and realized how unfunny that would be. Dina had been furloughed from her nursing job at Bayberry General for the past few months and she was losing her grip.
Petey and I hopped into Corrie and sped off toward The Snake Bite. It was really a bar but they served breakfast starting at eleven. The bar lived up to its name, but the restaurant wasn’t too bad. They served the best huevos rancheros around. It was Petey’s favorite. He looked like he hadn’t eaten anything that wasn’t from a hermetically sealed, or whatever it’s called, bag in weeks. Poor kid, I thought. He had it rough, with Jimbo running off and Dina laid off. Even fully clothed he had that stray dog look about him; ready to protect his tiny territory to the death, or head for the hills with his tail between his legs. I wondered where he’d be in ten years.
After breakfast Petey fell asleep in Corrie on the way back to my place. I woke him and we walked arm in arm to the front door. “Do you want to hang here for awhile?” I asked. “Joe is sleeping until his shift starts, but you can chill on the couch for a couple of hours.” Petey nodded then sprawled over the couch. Even with his long brown eyelashes I could see the smudge of circles under his eyes. I got a quilt out of the closet and laid it over him. “Thanks,” he mumbled. Then I put the remote in his jacket pocket so we wouldn’t forget it later.
The accident happened after that, when I was driving him back to the trailer.
They kept the AC high in the hospital waiting room and I shivered on the plastic chair. It was the first time I’d remembered anything about the day of the accident without being prompted. And the memory of the huevos reminded me of the breakfast waiting for me with Glen. I looked at my watch. It was one of the few things that I’d kept from the “lost weekend” as Joe called my television marathon. You’d think the cat would have been the one to hold the days of neglect against me. Joe had been out having fun with his buddies, pretending to shoot innocent animals while really just going away to booze and fart. Garfield had to live through the hours of television.
About ten days after the lost weekend the merchandise started to arrive. In that time I’d had the car accident, and the doctors had put me in a medically induced coma. A lot of miraculous paraphernalia waited for Joe on the front porch each day as he returned home from sitting next to me at the hospital. There were miracle pancake pans and pasta makers and miracle dusters. There were miracle cleaners and miracle wrinkle-removers and gutter guards. A few days later the big-ticket items appeared. A comfort-zone king-sized mattress, a sitting lawn mower the size of a small tractor. A 14’ by 14’ storage shed. Apparently I’d adopted a village in Somalia and saved a pod of whales as well as become a lifetime platinum member of the Church of the Blessed Pilates or some such nonsense. I think Joe was ready to pull the plug by the time they took me out of the coma. It took all our savings to pay the return shipping. Not to mention my yet unpaid hospital bills.
Apparently, the Tri-Pole didn’t offer health benefits.
The settlement from the city should come any day. The lawyers were nitpicking over details that I didn’t want to know about. I remembered nothing at all from the accident. I knew what people told me and I knew what made sense. Corrie was a small car and the garbage truck didn’t see us. That wasn’t my fault. That wasn’t Petey’s fault. Thank God he was okay. And the money would help Dina get back on her feet. Maybe she’d put some aside for Petey’s college.
Joe thought we’d share the money. But I couldn’t work. Had to quit my job at the Quick Burger. My memory was tricky. I mixed up words and had seizures, mini ones, that made me forget where I was or what I was doing. Not the best of disabilities for a short-order cook. So I’d give some cash to Joe, to us, and I’d put a stash away for me. A cushion in case something happened.
It should be a decent chunk of change. Probably somewhere around a half-million after the lawyer took his share and the hospital was paid. Petey would get his own chunk. He lost two fingers on his left hand but everything else was fine. People said we were both lucky to be alive. I guessed they were right.
But if one good thing came from the accident, it was Glen. His wife Lulu was my roommate in the recovery ward for two weeks. Even through the bandages, I could tell right away that he was a honey, kind of quiet and big–sweet, not bossy like Joe. It must have been his low drawl of a voice or the way he smelled–like cut grass.
All we ever did was talk. Glen helped me after I left the hospital. We’d meet up for a sandwich or a cup of coffee in the evenings after he visited Lulu and Joe left for the Tri-Pole. We both needed the company. Garfield never said much and Joe was in punishment mode. He was still pissed about the miraculous merchandise. Once he knew that I was going to live, he decided on my punishment.
We’d been together long enough that I knew what to expect. The silent treatment. The cold shoulder. The “I don’t care,” when I tried to make a conversation. It drove me crazy when we were first married. But once I’d adapted to his brand of cruelty I was able to navigate through the days until deemed worthy of his attention. Don’t get me wrong, it still stung, but this time, because of Glen’s sympathetic ear, I was able to hide my reaction more easily. But there was a difference; not only was Joe not talking, but he’d taken to not touching me. Garfield was included. Joe hadn’t fed the cat while I was in the hospital. I didn’t know what else Joe did, but the cat was missing a chunk of his left ear. He hissed and spit if Joe got too close.
“A fight,” Joe told me when I finally got home.
“With who?” I’d wondered. The cat was a skeleton that wouldn’t leave my side. At first I fed him tidbits of my own meals. The days I was able to get out of bed I’d fill his food bowl. One day when Dina came over to drive me to therapy I asked if she’d take him to her place until I could get back on my feet. She understood. Plus Petey really liked Garfield. So it was a win-win for everyone.
A few days ago when I told Glen that I had to wait at the hospital for Joe’s toe surgery he knew right away that I’d need an escape. He told me to text when I was ready and he’d meet me at Le Crepe a few blocks away.
Le Crepe wasn’t as fancy as it sounded and the way Joe said it you knew it came out like “la crap.” It was somewhere in between, with decent food and good coffee and it was convenient to the hospital. The plastic chair was getting uncomfortable and Kathy hadn’t called me over to give out any information. As far as I knew she hadn’t once looked in my direction. I was beginning to think she’d forgotten about my existence so I walked over to the desk to verify that they had my cell number. The desk phone rang in the middle of our exchange and Kathy waved me off like she knew what I was going to say–even though we hadn’t finished our conversation. There was something about her I didn’t like. But I felt a monster headache looming so it was time to go.
Glen was already inside La Crepe when I pushed the café door open. I saw his strong plaid-clad back at the end of the counter near the coffee pots. He stood to give me a hug. “How’s it going?” He sat down and pushed a cup of coffee toward me. I took the stool next to him and told him about the wait and Kathy and the fact that Garfield came home three days ago and seemed happy. I guessed the cat had a short-term memory problem too. Maybe that was a good thing.
“How’s Lulu?” I asked after finishing my diatribe. Lulu was diabetic. She was in the hospital again with a leg infection.
“Not too good,” Glen answered and went on to tell me how she’d pretty much given up. “The doctor said they’re going to have to amputate.”
“That sucks,” I said. And I meant it. Then I ordered a short stack of blueberry with a side of bacon. Glen ordered an egg-white omelet with turkey sausage and a fruit salad. He was training for a triathlon. His voice was soft when he spoke so I had to lean over to listen. I’d never noticed that his eyes were clear blue.
“She wants me to move out,” he said. “She doesn’t want me to see her decline.”
“That’s nuts,” I said. “How’s she going to survive?”
“She doesn’t want to survive.”
We were quiet for a while. “What are you going to do?” I finally asked.
“I don’t know. She’s moved into her sister’s house. So I guess I don’t have to actually move out.”
“Sit tight,” I advised. “She’ll come around. She’s probably freaking about her leg.” I hated that Glen was so down. I needed him to pick me up. Lulu was crazy not to see how much he loved her.
“How’re Joe and his toe?” Glen speared a sausage. There was something gross about the way he gnawed at it.
I concentrated on pouring the pure maple syrup over my pancakes. “Okay, I guess. I mean everything is pretty much the same and he hasn’t done anything mean to Garfield. He did seem pretty friendly with that chick Kathy at the hospital. I think they went to high school together or something.”
Glen stopped chewing. “The blond with the fake tan?”
“I guess. I didn’t notice a tan. But she was blond. Lip ring?”
“Yup, that’s her.” Glen looked around like he was going to reveal his darkest secret then went back to nibbling the sausage.
“What?” I said. “You know her? You can’t look around like that and then not tell me.”
“I have no proof so don’t go berserko on me. Remember, I’d never have said anything except that you asked. Remember, you asked.”
The way he was talking I didn’t want him to say the words. “What, they did it?” The word it came out louder than intended. But I didn’t care.
“I don’t know, but I did see her at the Tri-Pole while you were in the hospital.”
“Oh really. What was she doing over there? What were you doing over there? Lulu was in the hospital too.”
“I don’t know exactly what she was doing. I saw her talking to Joe then going into a room.”
“Then what happened?”
“I don’t know. I was leaving.”
“So what then. No big deal.” My head throbbed. The heat came off the grill in ugly blue waves. There was the sound of wind roaring through a tunnel. “Why were you there?”
Those were the last words I heard before I went under. Glen’s mouth moved. The servers delivered food. The cooks and kitchen staff gestured behind the window. All of this continued until I went face down into my plate of blueberry pancakes.
Warm, sticky-sweet nothingness. Before the accident. Before Joe stopped talking to me. Before