by Laura Freudig
The squirrel in the parking lot eyed the peanuts I was throwing with a thin thread of thought more like a rat’s wormish tail than its own generous bushy one: a narrow line stretching from the woods to the loading dock, from fear to desire. I stacked two pound bags of peanuts from a pallet by the open loading door into a metal cart, which I planned to wheel into the Food Mart and place on a shelf in the strategic location devised by our manager, Ms. Carmine Bardwell. One of the stiff plastic sacks had split, spilling its contents among the rest of the sacks, and as I stacked, I simultaneously tossed peanuts to the squirrel. In the past ten minutes it had skittered down a spruce tree and a concrete retaining wall, across thirty feet of cracked asphalt and was now ten feet from the loading dock.
I didn’t want the squirrel, per se, but its tail—properly enlivened—would make a fine companion. It would need nothing but would still contain a curious and lively residue of squirrelness. I could imagine it, a pompom of fur, cupped in my hands or pocketed for cold walks to the Food Mart, vibrating with unutterable chirrups and chitters.
“Malcolm? Peanuts?” Ms. Carmine Bardwell’s head asked me through the swinging doors that led into the store.
The squirrel dashed off into the trees.
I put the last sack of peanuts on my cart and wheeled it out as she held open the door.
“It’s six now,” she said, “and you got two hours left. I want you to do the cigs, the mats, restock bags, and check dates on the bagged stuff. Got it?”
“Yes, Ms. Carmine Bardwell,” I said. “Would you like me to sweep?”
“Nope. Jonathan’s got it. Sorry.” She laughed. She knows I like to sweep.
“Spread the love,” she said. And it is only fair that Jonathan be allowed to sweep occasionally, though he never seems to get the pleasure out of it that I do. I love the serendipitous fit of the broom to the exact width of the aisles, how the head toggles back and forth when you lift it up, perfectly balanced, the marble-like feel of the linoleum under my feet as I push the day’s accretions before me. I love how no one disturbs a sweeping man, how my thoughts gather like so much dust and debris in a quiet, varied pile. It is a deep joy, as Ms. Carmine Bardwell so aptly notes.
“Peanuts here and here,” she said, pointing, still laughing.
They are all very humorous people at the store and seem to laugh continually, though I do not always understand the object of their amusement. I have been told in the past by those in a position to know, that I was a very serious baby and an uncompromising toddler. They say I grew into a stately child and a rigid adolescent. I do not believe those terms are pejorative, despite what others may think: the world is complex and mystifying. If you do not know from whence you have come or to where you are going, how do you know that it is possible—or even advisable—to enjoy the journey? Perhaps an alert wariness is a wiser stance. That last is a statement made often to me, as in “Just enjoy the journey, man!” by portly Jonathan who is one of my co-workers. He is married to another co-worker, the beautiful Ida of the white skin and Egyptian eye makeup, whom I have long admired, though rarely—it must be admitted—understood.
Ida, being beautiful and doll-like and too short to reach upper shelves, works at the front of the store at a cash register. She is unable to enunciate the consonants t and n with any degree of percussiveness, and hence her speech has for me a degree of mystery both alluring and alarming.
She said to me, smiling, “Hu, ca you ge de madoes off de seff fu me?” and I ran from her. Later, though, through consonantal trial and error, I realized that she had called me hon, and asked me to reach a can of tomatoes on the top shelf. I berated myself for the lost opportunity to both acknowledge the endearment and be of service to her, and marveled at the way Jonathan can decipher her speech in an instant. He is brighter than I had thought, though perhaps love heightens his ability to perform complex linguistic feats on the fly. I must think about that.
On fair days between May and October, I sit at the principal intersection in my small town eating ice cream during many of my off hours. There is a raised brick walkway behind me which leads to the front door of a bank. I sit on the edge of the walk with a wrought iron railing at my back. Main Street extends to the right and left, and High Street runs at a perpendicular angle off in a mostly southerly direction. People wave at me, but I do not wave back, at least at present. I do not know what would happen if I did. It seems prudent to refrain without further knowledge. I do sometimes smile, or blink.
Last evening, a car of young men drove by, booming and thrumming like an endangered, flightless bird in search of a mate. Gravel flew; tired squealed.
“It’s friggin’ robot man!” I heard someone say.
“Moron!” another yelled.
Something sticky and warm, not altogether unlike the caramel sauce on my vanilla ice cream, hit my neck.
I did not wave at them, nor utter any of the expletives which came to mind.
Perhaps their souls are as small and misshapen as beautiful Ida’s tongue, and housed in a precancerous mole on the buttocks or perhaps in a strawberry birthmark hidden under flannel. It is hard to say. It is a persistent illusion that the soul emanates from the cranium. How could the sum total of our personhood be locked in a bone box? That would be like saying Roy Rodgers and Jerry Seinfeld live behind the convex glass of the television on top of my bureau. And what to make of the fact that it is my heart that aches when I see Jonathan and beautiful Ida walking home together when their shift at the Food Mart is over with the plastic sacks of their future convivial dinner (and the condoms of their future conjugal relations) clutched in their hands.
I live in an apartment behind the gas station with my roommate, Stanley. I do not own a car, though Stanley owns a wheelchair, which I can often make use of in a small way; for example, he will allow me to loop grocery sacks or other items over his handlebars if we are shopping together. Once, early in our acquaintance, I asked him if he would hold a sack of potatoes on his lap for me.
“Malcolm,” he said, “I don’t have a lap.”
That is actually true. Both his legs end at the pelvis, so in a literal sense, he does not possess a lap.
I enjoy living with Stanley. He is generous with breakfast cereal and is not particular about what we watch on television. I also think he is interesting from a philosophical and scientific point of view.
I have asked him on numerous occasions how he came to be possessed of zero legs, but so far I suspect he has been reticent with the true story. He has told me they were cut off by a speeding train, also crushed beyond repair by a falling hippopotamus. On another occasion he told me it was a result of a fire-walking accident. Once he said he was tricked into climbing in a three-foot-deep vat of liquid hydrogen. I suspect he was born that way, which is a disappointment to me because I cannot question him (if he were willing to answer honestly and without hyperbole) about a theory I have been developing concerning the nature of the soul and its anatomical location. My question, then: is Stanley’s soul more concentrated or more dilute because of his missing legs?
In short, I have a great curiosity to see what parts of me look like unattached from the rest of me. When I look at my arm, woven to my shoulder by tissue, sinew, and bone, I view it subjectively. I don’t see it as it really is. I don’t see it as an arm. I am too close to it to note whether it is beautiful or ugly, functional or useless. Ah! But if it were disattached, I could hold it, feel it, and view it at a distance from every side! Would part of my consciousness remain in the arm? If I dropped it on the floor would I feel the sensation of falling? Would the arm beckon or call to me in some unmistakable way? In a room full of severed arms, would I recognize my own, like a mother penguin finds her particular chick in the icy avian din of the rookery?
Since providentially legless Stanley is unwilling to further the cause of scientific and philosophical inquiry by sharing his personal experience, (and a squirrel is, for the present, unattainable), I have resolved to test my theories on the only available subject. Myself.
These two questions direct my line of inquiry:
Where is the soul? In what container does it lie?
I resolved to begin with the little toe of my left foot: small, concealed, essentially vestigial.
Stanley, who is a cashier at the gas station to which our apartment is attached, was working all night. I brought home with me from the Food Mart a sack containing a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol, rubbing alcohol, gauze pads, a hand-held knife sharpener, and a tube of antibiotic ointment.
“Oo be ca-ul,” said Ida as I checked out, her intricate eyebrows raised in alarm.
I did not know how to respond since I did not know what meaning she was trying to convey with “Oo be ca-ul” but later realized I could have simply nodded, so as not to arouse suspicion. I do not know if it is illegal to disenfranchise a digit. If I were in the armed services, such an action might be construed as rendering oneself unfit for service, which I believe is a punishable offense. Do you own your own members in the sense that you can dispose of them at will? If I were the left-hand member of a pair of conjoined twins, could I cut off the toe of my brother with impunity—or even my own? Could I be arrested for assault with a deadly weapon in either case? I do not know.
I walked home with my supplies, saying to myself, “Oo be ca-ul, oo be ca-ul” with different inflections and emphasis, trying to decipher it. On the way, a number of cars applied their horns in my vicinity or gunned their engines in a provocative way, as though there were something amiss with the way I walk or the bobbing brown curls which brush my shoulders or my fireman’s helmet. Or perhaps they are celebrating the quickness of my steps and the upright carriage of my body, the undeviating nature of my peregrinations. I prefer to walk straight lines, from point to point, instead of tracing circuitous paths.
I laid my supplies in a line on our counter, in order of requirement, then applied ice to the digitus (pedis) minimus for an hour. I sharpened and sterilized a paring knife in a pot of water set to boil on our hot plate, and, drying it carefully, I set it against the line I had drawn on my skin. The first motion was the hardest, the skin tougher than I expected, my own hand less obedient to my will and more in sympathy with its fellow member. I pressed down, through welling blood and fraying tissue. The center of the toe, next to the bone, was not without sensation, and I discovered that one can still scream when one’s mouth is stuffed with rags, though, of course, not with the same volume or clarity of expression.
But I had determined to carry this experiment through to its logical conclusion. What good, after all, is a man who claims to have faith but has no deeds? With my right hand holding the knife against the bone, I smashed a brick down on the back of the blade with my left hand. The toe broke free.
There was blood everywhere. It pooled and ran across the warped linoleum, forming red lines in checkerboard patters. I sopped up the blood as well as I could, realizing as each successive rag became heavy and scarlet, that I had underestimated how much blood would ensue. I put them in a garbage bag to be hidden at the bottom of the dumpster outside our door. The stump dribbled blood on the floor but was quickly clotting. I washed it gently in a basin of warm water, daubed it with ointment, swathed it in gauze, and eased on a large sock.
Then I went to look for my toe.
It was a small nibblet of meat under the edge of the counter, a brown giblet, a gobbet. I picked it up in my hand, expecting to feel a dizzying revelation of shared consciousness. I felt myself bending forward to put it back, my little meat doppelganger. But it was utterly silent and insensate, and I felt nothing but a strangeness that what was once attached to my foot was now resting in my hand. And a pulsing fire of pain gnawing like a wolverine at the edge of my narrowed foot.
I staggered to my feet and bathed the toe in warm water, excavating the blood caked under its toenail. I had the sudden urge to talk to it, as I talk to myself while sitting at the intersection with my ice cream and while walking along the road from the Food Mart to the Circle K. It ought to open a small, sleepy eye and walk around the room while discoursing on how glad it was to finally be itself, not a mute part of the larger Malcolm. I am the toe, and the toe is me. But, no. It just sits there like a sirloin tip.
I gaze at the toe I created—for it only really became a toe when it was no longer attached to me—then I threaded a needle and sewed a long loop of thread to it. According to my former theory, I should have felt something when I shoved the needle in. But I did not. I limped into the bathroom and hung the toe in the window. Stanley may enjoy it, not having toes of his own. Or he may find it a sad reminder of his loss, in which case I will remove it. The toe twirled at the end of its thread, casting a tidbit of a shadow in the neon light shining in.
Stanley’s and my bathroom is too narrow to admit a wheelchair, and Stanley propels himself into it by parking his wheelchair in the doorway and “walking,” as it were, with one hand on a metal bar screwed to the wall and the other on the vanity, then straddling the lid of the toilet and the edge of the bathtub, much in the manner of a gymnast on the parallel bars. His arms are as strong as legs. I sat on the toilet and brushed my teeth, my knees knocking the tub and one elbow propping open the window. I felt lightheaded (perhaps as a result of blood loss and adrenaline) and thought the cooler air would ease my symptoms.
Stanley was just below the window, smoking a cigarette and eating a slice of pizza.
“Good evening, Stanley,” I called, my voice sounding heartier than I felt.
“Malcolm,” he said, tipping the pizza toward me. “How goes your evening?”
The toe dangled a foot above my head. Stanley would be unlikely to notice it from where he was parked and unlikelier to recognize it. (I rarely went barefoot.) I thought about confiding in him but decided it would be more scientifically valuable not to prejudice my results: how would surprised Stanley react as he sat on the toilet the next morning? That could be worth knowing.
“I conducted an experiment to determine the location and concentration of the soul,” I said by way of both alluding to and obscuring my activity.
He nodded. “Interesting.”
“Yes,” I said, “I feel my soul has been concentrated and I am closer to pinpointing its location.”
He smiled. “So what was it? Did you convince beautiful Ida to come home with you?”
“Beautiful Ida is married,” I said.
“True.” He chewed thoughtfully. “Do you want some pizza?”
Despite the fact that I was in the middle of brushing my teeth, I found myself salivating.
“Yes, please, Stanley,” I said.
He folded the rest of his pizza into a small package and shoved it into his mouth, then tossed his cigarette on to the pavement in front of him. The tiny red ember winked out as he rolled over it.
He was back in a minute and handed me a piece of pizza through the window.
“Thank you, Stanley,” I said.
“Thank Circle K,” he said, laughing, and rolled back inside the store.
I turned to lower the window sash and accidentally bumped my wounded foot against the tub. I gasped and fell forward and let go of the window. It crashed down like a guillotine. I lay in the crevice between the toilet and the tub for many minutes, my pizza clutched in one upraised hand, until my heart rate slowed and the searing receded to a dull throb.
As I said to Stanley, at first I felt my soul was—just slightly—concentrated, but now, lying in bed in the darkness, I know there is no difference. My soul has not been concentrated; if anything I feel dilute, diffuse, drained. Perhaps the toe is simply too small to hold an appreciable volume of soul. I put a tablespoon of sugar in my tea every morning. (Bear with me. This is less of a tangent than it might otherwise appear.) If I were to subtract a teaspoon from that, I would notice a concomitant decrease in sweetness; the removal of a single grain, however, would be so small as to be undetectable by any apparatus I possess. My experiment may have been flawed by using too small a data sample.
Perhaps a blade could be affixed to the bottom of the bathroom window frame. The bathroom could become a makeshift but convenient abattoir. I wondered what it would be like to be a head with no body. That would seem to be the definitive experiment.
The throbbing in my foot eased, and my heart rate returned to normal. I snuggled into my blankets, comforted by having a plan to continue my study: hope does not disappoint.
As I fell asleep, I realized beautiful Ida was simply telling me to be careful.
Laura Freudig lives on an island in Maine with her husband and children. She has had fiction published in The Sun and was a 2019 PEN/Dau Emerging Writer Award winner.