Of Feet and Trench Foot
This had less to do with living near the Potomac and much more to do with Ryan Kent’s persistent terrors about his grandparents’ jungle rot.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It’s only an obsession if it’s happening to someone else.
My mother used to call it jungle foot rot. I’ve also heard it called trench foot. I don’t know whether it’s, in fact, the same thing, but whatever.
Rose and Cliff.
Both of them had it. I guess from sleeping next to each other. They obviously didn’t borrow each other’s shoes. I have no idea whether or not they spooned at night, but somehow one’s foot pollinated the other’s foot and spawned this new member of our family. Then it spread to its twin. Jungle foot rot. My mother called it that.
Each grandparent leaning back in their matching, crushed red recliner. Sockless feet exposed, and their respective rot on display for the living room amongst candy dishes, hand-painted figurines, and family members. They were oblivious. Or they were just too old to care.
But we did.
Walk in the room in their place in the Colonial Beach area of Virginia and there were those feet. Everywhere you turned. Eyeing you like someone’s mean, yellow-eyed dogs. Or the tongue-eating louse people find in the mouths of tuna. You couldn’t talk to Rose or Cliff without acknowledging their feet. A pair of accusing eyes over the top of a newspaper. Someone’s bitchy kid. Those scaly, cracked, reptile feet quietly judging and pointing out any imperfections. Almost thinking for their masters.
“What does anyone need with all of that hair?”
“Are you still in college?”
“Your girlfriend sure does have a big nose.”
I knew who was really doing the talking.
My mother bought each of her parents their own medicated creams, dry-skin lotions and pumice stones. These remained unopened in the bathroom closet next to an old bonnet hair dryer. Yet somehow one of my grandmother’s feet seemed to get better. Maybe the toes had an intervention. It re-evaluated its life. Took a look in the mirror. Made some calls. Got its shit together and kicked out the junky boyfriend. But it was too late for the sister foot. She was too far gone. Destined to walk through this life a leper. An outcast. Forever.
My grandfather’s situation was entirely different.
There would be no turning back. No nick of time Marine rescue. The mission was over. His feet were dead. Or looked dead. More talon than toenail. Curved and yellow like rodent teeth. I imagined him gliding like a hawk high above a meadow of tall grass. Trucker hat. Beer belly like the midday sun. Swooping down fast and coming back up with a flailing rabbit to take home for my grandmother to cook.
That one day the fat-ass stepfather was on his knees, bent forward like he was diffusing a bomb. Metal wire cutters, firmly gripped, trying to accomplish what the broken toenail clippers could not. Nail shards that looked like chunks of concrete. He hated it. Swearing under his breath the same as I’d heard him swear underneath cars. Words no man of God would use. This took an afternoon. Jungle foot rot. My mother called it that.
Rose and Cliff are both gone now. The fat-ass stepfather has run off with an ugly woman who owns a music store. Neither of her parents have toenails because they were both cremated, so I guess the son of a bitch is happy. They live a few houses away from my mother.
It’s just my mother and I now. She has glaucoma, and I have a drinking problem. Both divorced. Both feeling older than we actually are. She lives an hour north. We call each other a few days a week. Talk about the weather. What we saw on the news. Things we had to eat. Shit people talk about when they are avoiding talking about real shit. Then we talk about her parents. How we miss them. The memories. That, despite the rot, they didn’t have equals.
Why all of the pain? Why the torment? Why the hatred and malice and greed? Why isn’t there enough food? Why is the water bad? Why is the trust gone?
They are side by side in a cemetery in my mother’s town. Under a magnolia tree near the highway. I tend to visit when it’s warmer. Standing in the shade over their markers. Noticing new places where the grass has finally grown back. Usually I tell them about what has happened in my life since the last visit. I tell them their sports teams are still awful.
This last time I went there though, I asked them questions.
I asked what all of this is about. Why all of the pain? Why the torment? Why the hatred and malice and greed? Why isn’t there enough food? Why is the water bad? Why is the trust gone? Why do I run in my dreams, and why am I alone? Is my life the way it is because of my decisions, or was it going to happen this way regardless? Am I a failure? I asked those questions. Then I asked if they’re taking care of their feet.