Sourtoe

I got the phone call I’d been dreading. The woman at the nursing home told me it was almost time, that my Auntie Edith was about to die. Of course, she didn’t say “die,” that word being too raw, too final. She told me Edith hadn’t been able to eat anything for days and had started holding her arm up in the air. The nurse had asked her why she’d lifted her arm up and Edith had mumbled, “I’m getting the Creator’s attention.”

The next day I was on a plane back to the reservation. There was no one else to do it. Ninety-six years old, Edith had never had children, and her husband had died decades ago.

On the plane, I tried to think of what I would say to her. It seemed momentous, my final words to her, and I wanted to get it right. But it was hard to concentrate, because I kept thinking about what had happened last week.

I’d been awakened in the early hours of the morning by the sound of my wife sobbing in the bathroom.

“I lost it.” Julie looked up at me, tears running down her face like little liquid jewels.

“Oh God, are you sure? What happened?”

She flashed a look of pure contempt. “Of course I’m sure. Look at this.” There was blood everywhere.

“Are you all right? Should we go to the doctor?” A million thoughts were running through my head, but I couldn’t focus on any one of them. “You know we can try again? You know that, right?”

She’d looked at me straight on, her eyes steely and narrowed.

“Never. Never again.”

 

I picked up my rental car at the airport and headed for the nursing home. I took a wrong turn somewhere and got lost. I saw a woman pushing a baby stroller down the sidewalk, so I pulled over.

“Hey, can you tell me which way is North Avenue?” I noticed she was wearing a beat-up green parka. Older than I’d first thought; black hair and brown skin, like me.

She looked me up and down. “It’s up ahead, about five blocks. You can’t miss it.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“Any chance you could help out with some bus fare?”

I started to stammer out an excuse, but then I looked down into the battered baby stroller she had with her. Inside the stroller was a doll—an infant—wrapped up and swaddled with blankets. I gazed at the doll with its smiling face. Its eyes glittered, sparkled and seemed to look right at me.

I pulled out my wallet and gave the woman a twenty.

 

Minutes later, I was at the nursing home. After a short wait, the nurse took me to Edith’s room. I’d expected needles, tubes, and lines, but there was nothing like that. Edith was ashen and gray, and looked like she was in a deep sleep.

“Edith, it’s Desmond. I came as soon as I could. Julie’s not here, she sends her love, she wants you to get better, so do I, we just want you to get well.”

I felt foolish. Why was I spewing this horseshit about her getting better? There wasn’t going to be any recovery for her, not after the massive stroke that had paralyzed her throat muscles.

I tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come.

“Edith, I want you to know that I’m here. I’m right here.”

This was the best I could do. I turned on the radio and stared at the wall, alone with my shame.

 

Later, I decided to drink some beer. I headed out and stopped at the first bar I saw. The place looked pretty empty, which suited me fine. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a sign proclaiming BROWNTOE SOCIAL CLUB mounted on the wall behind the bar.

“Did you find North Avenue?” someone said.

It was the woman with the baby stroller who’d given me directions.

I tried to cover my surprise. “Uh, yeah, I did, thanks again.”

“Cheers. I’m Stella.” She took a drink.

I held my beer up. “Desmond.”

I didn’t know what to say next, a condition that was becoming familiar to me. “So, what’s the Browntoe Social Club?”

She smiled, and leaned over the bar. “Bill, let’s initiate this guy.”

Bill the bartender brought over a jar filled with some murky liquid and started trying to fish something out with a long spoon.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s a toe.”

It didn’t look like any toe I’d ever seen. It was dark brown and looked like a giant cockroach.

“The owner of the bar lost it while mowing his lawn.” The bartender poured a beer and dropped the toe in it. “The only rule is this: your lips must touch the toe when you drink. You can drink fast or slow, but you gotta touch the toe.”

Stella said, “When you join the club, your name goes in the book. But the best part is you get to make a wish when your lips touch the toe. And the wish always comes true.”

“So, you want to join?” asked the bartender.

I looked over at Stella, who was holding her baby and making soft sounds. I thought about all my wishes that hadn’t come true.

Then, all of a sudden, a vision of my aunt appeared to me. It was her, but she was decades younger, and she was holding a baby. I watched as Edith gave the child to my wife Julie, who held the infant. The child was smiling, her eyes shining.

I picked up the beer and took a drink, draining the beer steadily. I felt something solid, so I threw my head back and let the toe rest against my lips.

It felt like an egg, or maybe the sun. I felt it burning my lips and mouth. The pain was excruciating, like a white-hot iron.

I kept wishing.

David Weidenis among the first class of students enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Arts’ new MFA program in creative writing, where he works with Sherman Alexie. An enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, he lives in Denver.

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