Hammer Toes and Heart Murmurs
Valoria stepped up to 4692 Hawthorne Street ready to do battle with the walking, talking tonnage who had given her life: Virginia Q. Docket. She had spent weeks preparing for the showdown—lifting weights, cutting her hair scalp-close, practicing the come-back and the put-down in a dizzying variety of flavors: acerbic, combative, witty, cruelly hilarious. Finally, she had honed her truth to an unforgiving edge and convinced herself that she would wield it:
“If this is the way you love me, I don’t need to be loved.”
She’d slit her mother’s throat with those words and watch the fabulously fat derelict sink into shock at the recognition of their truth.
“As long as I accept any old thing called love from you, I will never be free to accept the real thing from anyone else. I won’t even recognize it.”
Stupid things situated just so in the world had convinced Valoria that all this was necessary, and that today was the day it should come to pass. Her horoscope that very morning had read:
“Unattached Taureans will be given another shot at love.”
She had read those words after she had awakened from a dream about Slavko, the balding Bosnian who was installing her drywall. His dark eyes and pillowy pout of a mouth made her brittle with desire. The thickness of his voice made her want to slip her tongue into the dental disaster of his mouth and instigate love. It was stupid—unforgivable really—to want something so simple, and to be so wildly incapable of getting it. And that was her mother’s fault.
Watching Slavko show up for work day after day had made her brave. He had once been a pilot. Now he found himself grounded in someone else’s country, where he spent his days doing a job for which he had a talent but not a calling. Valoria could see in the way he carried himself and his tools that he was accustomed to soaring. She wanted him to fly again, but she also wanted that same, first-time freedom for herself. The screen door at the back of her mother’s house stared blankly at her. Its graying, weathered wood showed through layers of blistering and peeling paint: green on top of yellow on top of a brittle white that chipped off when knocked. A wash of odors seeped through the ancient screening on the door: onions and black pepper; crisp, basted chicken skin; the tangy sting of lemon. Valoria’s hunger was instantly excited by these aromas and just as swiftly quelled by the competing stink of grease-soaked plaster; beer lately quaffed, secreted, and pissed; and the dry stink of mice.
Before she had even raised her hand to knock, Jack squealed and jumped to attention.
“Hey, Val. How you been?”
The green bean he had been snapping into ragged halves fell from his alcohol-clawed fingers, jumped ship from the twisted crotch of his checked pants, and hit the floor with a bounce. He fumbled with the latch on the screen door as he stooped to recover what had gotten away from him.
Jack was one of Virginia’s more committed suitors. He had first been smitten by her when he was a rangy fifteen-year-old and she a boldly curved eighteen-year-old. That he was still orbiting Virginia at the ripe old age of fifty-two said volumes about something. Said, perhaps, that Jack had decided long ago to believe all of what he heard stretched through Virginia’s lying lips, and none of what he saw through the slow, watery roll of his own eyes.
Love was definitely not a one-shot folly with him. It was a chronic, historically inescapable condition.
“Jack Sprat!” Virginia called from the dining room. “Didn’t I tell you to mind your goddamned business and get the next batch of them string beans ready for me? I don’t want to have to be cooking vats of this mess all night!” There was a dry pause during which Virginia seemed to collect her thoughts.
“But, Ginn-Ginn. It’s Val.” Jack’s whine soared to a nerve-needling high and then crashed into silence. He turned his back on Val and held the ragged halves of the green bean beneath a stream of water for a few seconds. He threw the bits onto the mound of green in the center of the kitchen table.
Val stepped over the threshold just as Virginia swung into the room, her meaty arms quivering with the effort of shaking dust from a small throw rug. The older woman was shaped like an upside-down Christmas tree, on top of which the accidental ornament of her head had been set with demented purposefulness.
“Well, if it ain’t the prodigal daughter!”
“Prodigal,” Val announced, “means wasteful. Not repentant.”
“Whatever the hell, chile,” Virginia laughed back. “I’m just talkin’ to hear myself talk.”
She belched with a suddenness that made her belly bounce and a jump of air knot in her chest. She punched herself softly, from the top of her belly up to her breastbone.
“What’s with the bull-dykish haircut?”
“It’s just a haircut.” Val insisted. A coiffure meant to render Val herself aerodynamically sound and to keep everyone—especially Virginia—from snatching her back into combat after she had dealt the final blow. Val imagined herself bulleting through space and time in a new direction.
“Well,” Virginia commented dryly. “It looks like somebody done drug you across fresh concrete. Shit looks like it hurts.”
Val let the comment slide, feeling gloriously unassailable in her virtual baldness.
Virginia smiled that cracked smile of hers that drove dentists everywhere wild with the rush of calculating what they could do to rescue it from total ruin. She’d need a good cleaning to start, some periodontal work, and two or three crowns fashioned to fit over the pterodactyl-like stumps of enamel that stippled her upper dental arc. Maybe she’d need a partial made or, better yet, consent to having a fistful of permanent replacement teeth anchored into place with titanium pins.
“I must say, I’m mighty surprised to see you here slummin’ it with your dear, old Mom.” Virginia shuffled into the room. The ankle socks she was wearing were a filthy pink and white, but they made her feet seem happy.
Val waited for her mother’s unevenly weighted frame to topple over, tits first. When it didn’t, she spoke: “I have to talk to you.”
“Well, you can ask me whatever it is after dinner, can’t you?” The words, “Come back tomorrow” were ready to fly past Virginia’s lips, when she swiftly switched gears. She was somebody’s mother.
“I had a feeling you were coming.” The lie gathered soft speed in her mouth. “So I jumped out of bed this morning and just started to cookin’. It was like I was a little bit possessed. I made some string beans and potatoes, with a little ham for flavoring; a roasted chicken with gravy; and a salad. I can make some kind of homemade rolls, if you want ’em. Oh, and rice. I’ve got some rice. I know you’re hungry.”
Virginia practiced a benign smile, but her teeth made a ragged disaster of the attempt. She dropped the folded throw rug to the floor and then touched her fingers to her flubbery breasts. When her breast self-exam failed to reveal moneyed lumps, she cupped her breasts more fiercely and squeezed them hard.
“These used to be the only two suckers I could trust, but now….” A gurgle of saliva-rich laughter bubbled just beneath the surface and then gassed out.
“I don’t know if I’m staying for dinner,” Val confessed.
Jack had vacated his seat and now pushed it gently towards Val.
“You must stay for dinner, chile,” Virginia drawled richly. Her eyes did swift, watery saccades, which seemed to ratchet up the tempo of her speech. She lowered her voice to compensate.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any money for smokes, would you?” Virginia flashed her nicotine- and beer-softened grin straight into Val’s face.
“Don’t you think I’ve paid enough for your filthy habits?” The utterance wasn’t actually a question. Its sudden weight left Virginia momentarily flattened and utterly incapable of responding.
The younger woman received the gift of Jack’s chair with a smile before pushing it back towards him.
“Jack, don’t let me steal your chair. I can drag one in from the dining room.”
“No, it’s okay, Val. I can finish what I got to do standin’ up.”
“You got that right!” Virginia snapped. “Jack and I don’t hardly smoke weed anymore anyways,” she said. “Do we, Jack?”
Virginia gave the tiny, bloodshot drunk a liquid look. Then, eerily, she cast her smile in Jack’s direction while she cut her harshly outlined eyes at Val. Jack slipped one foot from his black-heeled shoes, and scratched his other calf with his sweat-socked talons. He snapped beans for dear life, his bent head shaking to an unheard jazzy rhythm.
“I never smoked that that stuff in the first place!” Jack gave a curling whine. His voice might well have been made of paper that had been swiftly scraped across a scissors blade until it corkscrewed. He twirled a string bean in the air and continued, “Valoria, your mom knows that!”
“I know,” Val offered soothingly. Everyone in this hemisphere knows that you get your kick from champagne, or you would, if you could afford it.
Virginia looked at Val with a quizzical slant, an exaggerated “mother-may-I?” plea. And then, without warning, she dropped her hands heavily to her sides and sighed. “Oh, well. I been tryin’ to cut down anyways. I only had maybe eight cigarettes in the last two days. Now that’s something. Ain’t that right, Jack?”
Jack had gone back to snapping string beans. The strings that thrummed in his head seemed to be playing a more hopeful tune. Virginia eyed her bubbling pots sadly.
“I’ll definitely have money for cigarettes next week, but this week I’m crying broke.” She barked the last word and then twisted the skewed scarf on her head so that it fit more securely.
“Well, what about the dinner?” Val ventured. Visions of dinner plates being snatched from her hands and sold to discolored drunks and crack-smoking fly-by-nights flashed through her mind. She could see her mother’s hands counting a stream of flaccid ones and sending a wad of them back across the street for a pack of cigarettes and some beer. Virginia gave her head a cockatoo-ish twist.
“You don’t really expect me to believe you weren’t planning to sell plates over at the Dew Drop Inn?”
“Nope.” Virginia pouted proudly, like some outsized, black Shirley Temple. “I made that dinner for you!” She twisted a putrid little dishrag between her fingers. Then she bellowed. “Lord! Come on! I ain’t seen you since I don’t know when. You got to let me feed you. It’s the least you could do after showing up and catching me in the rough.” She clapped her hands frenetically, as if to ask, What to do? What to do? “What you want with dinner? Homemade dinner rolls or cornbread?”
“Whyn’t you make cornbread?” Jack piped in.
“Did I ask you?” Virginia looked up at a spot near Jack’s forehead that might have been on another plane entirely.
“Cornbread,” Val said. “Should I set the table?”
Frozen in position, Virginia made no move to respond in either word or deed. Valoria rummaged through the cabinet over the sink and pulled down an assortment of mismatched plates, saucers, and cups. Turquoise plastic. Cut crystal. Fine, pilfered china.
“It’s nice to have Val home, idn’t it?” Jack’s tongue slapped around in the glistening space where any other man his age would have had upper incisors, or some respectable dentures.
Virginia gave Jack a scathing look.
“Aha!” Val struggled to balance an armload of place settings as she eyed a stack of paper plates on the window sill. They were still in the plastic bag.
“What?” Virginia had snapped back into action. She was grabbing pots by their handles and repositioning them so that they wouldn’t be knocked over in the unexpected traffic now circulating in her tiny kitchen.
“You were going to sell plates!” Val widened her eyes and nodded at the paper plates.
“No, I wasn’t.”
Val leveled a look at Jack. “Tell the truth, Jack Sprat.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, we was gonna sell some dinners ‘cross to the bar. But Secret Squirrel, Winkie, and the rest of ‘em didn’t show up for their plates like they was ‘sposed to. So we just been, you know, staying ready in case they show up later.”
“Staying ready is fine as long as you don’t snatch my dinner out my hands and sell it.” Val was triangulating paper napkins and carefully placing one by each plate.
“I would never even think of doing that!” Jack protested. “Neither would your mom.” He smiled brightly enough to make it seem true.
“Come on. I gots to cook for my baby.” Virginia grew resentful of and then strangely committed to the profitless task of cooking for her daughter. She flicked a knob that ignited a circular ripple of flame under a cast iron skillet. She had begged, borrowed, and fudged against future profits to get the money to buy the food.
“Watch out. Back up.” She flicked a raggedy dishtowel as she opened the oven. She refused to calculate how far in the hole she’d be by the time her daughter had dragged the cornbread through the last slick of gravy on her plate.
“Ginn-Ginn,” Val is a grown woman now. She ain’t hardly nobody’s baby no more.” Jack shook his head with cartoonish sadness. He might have been a little kid who had just discovered that Santa Claus wasn’t real. Or a man who would never know exactly who he was to the women before him.
Virginia tilted the pan in which the chicken had cooked and poured off the juice into the skillet. “Put that cutting board on the table.” She threw out the order to no one in particular. Jack hopped to it. As soon as he had slapped the cutting board down, Virginia slid the hot roasting pan onto it. Swiftly, she turned and stirred a ready roux into the bubbling juices in the skillet.
“Y’all get out of here while I finish up.” She huffed out the words as she stirred vigorously. “Jack, get the stuff for the cornbread—and not that mix neither. The real deal cornmeal and all that jazz. And put those string beans in a bowl.”
“But I didn’t hardly finish snapping them yet.”
“The first batch, bunny! Over there keeping warm in the crock pot.” Virginia wiped a drizzle of sweat that rushed madly down the side of her face. “I don’t guess we’ll be selling anything tonight, so you might can put the fresh beans away for tomorrow. Wrap ‘em up good and tight when you do.”
“What are we drinking?” Val asked as Jack skittered across her path, first this way and then that, as he sought and found flour, salt, cornmeal.
“I have ginger ale and orange juice. And,” Virginia held up a finger. “I have ice.”
Val collected the only three clean glasses she could find and filled them with ice.
“I’ll get that, Val.” Jack reached up under the glasses and put his hot, dry hands on their bottoms.
“Good,” Virginia crooned to the bubbling gravy. “My baby shouldn’t have to work while your crazy ass is around.”
Jack stood there, the three glasses clawed in his hands, at a momentary loss for what to do. The need to mix up a ginger ale punch; find the butter, baking powder, and sugar; and set the dining room table tugged at his attention from all angles. Remembrance of the string beans cut through the dammed details in his mind.
“Go on and sit down at the table.”
Val did as she was told, impelled by a whiff of Jack’s unspeakable odor as he suddenly skidded past her with purpose. Some touch of a clean smell leavened the miasma of rot that oozed from his pores.
Virginia called over her shoulder. “You can start eating as soon as Jack gets his act together and serves you. Meantime, I’ll whip up the cornbread. It’ll be done by the time you’re ready for seconds.”
Jack tipped into the room, a bottle of flat ginger ale and a pitcher of orange juice squeezed by their necks in each of his hands. He filled a glass with flat, pulpy punch. He smiled as he set about his work.
“You heard from Dora?” Val asked her mother over the rim of her glass.
Jack backed out of the room, a look of waxy blankness on his face. He returned shortly with a bowl of string beans, from which a puff of steam rose and coiled into the atmosphere. Little boulders of potatoes broke the surface logjam of green. After placing the bowl carefully near the centerpiece—a punch bowl stuffed with spools of thread and coupons—Jack switched back into the kitchen.
“I guess not.” Val spoke to the surrounding silence. The empty place settings at either end of the table bracketed her solitary presence.
Jack tiptoed into the room and set down a platter of chicken. He touched the edge of the dish reverently and avoided Val’s gaze. After a moment, he positioned himself atop the stool that sat next to the sideboard. He V’ed a cigarette stub between tensed fingers, and sucked the sudden orange flame to ash.
“I’m not hungry,” he almost barked. “You eat, though, Val. It’s all right. Dig in.”
“Does she know that you have a cigarette?”
Jack cocked his head first this way and then that, as he processed what Val said.
“Ma!” Val called out. Jack flinched.
“Huh? Wait a minute.”
“Are you part Italian or what, with all this food? I might just have to unzip my pants to get comfortable.”
“The bread’ll be in the oven in a minute,” Virginia called back deafly.
There was a tumult of sound: metal spoon scouring the curve of a plastic bowl, the tap of metal against metal, and finally the sound of closure.
Val sat chewing, wondering at the instant comfort in those sounds. She remembered and then instantaneously suppressed memories of nights when she would get home late after drama club and slip into bed unseen. Unfed. She’d scrub herself clean—when there was water—and then crawl into bed to camouflage her hunger with sleep.
Virginia came into the dining room wiping beads of perspiration from her forehead.
“I’m about to pop, and I haven’t even finished my first plate yet.” Val leaned back in her chair with a synchronous creak of bone and wood.
“Well, honey. Undo your pants.” Virginia waved her hands towards the floor. “You should have worn sweat pants, ’cause you know how I do.”
Val unzipped her jeans. Jack looked tickled as he shifted on his perch.
“You’re getting mighty comfortable, seems like.” Jack smiled.
“I’m about to take my shoes off. Stretch out my hammer toes.”
The need to postpone the kill made Val giddy. It thrust a hundred and forty-two thousand other things to talk about to the forefront of her mind. Hammer toes.
“Aw, poor baby!” Virginia’s face seemed to slide off its matrix of bone. “You and those tricked-up hammer toes.”
Jack turned to face Val head-on. “That ain’t actually a problem, you know. She could have them fixed if she wanted to.”
“Right.” Val rolled her eyes. “I hardly think I’m going to pay somebody to break all my toes and….”
“You must have got those toes from all the time having your feet cramped into those shoes when you was a little girl.” Jack nodded his head. “Yeah, shoes was expensive, ‘cause, ‘course your mother ‘n me always bought you girls good shoes. But y’all was all the time growing out of them so fast. Now Dora,” Jack’s eyes bugged with the surprise of saying the name. “Dora would complain when the shoes started gettin’ too tight.” Jack nodded in Val’s general direction.
That was Dora’s role. To speak. Comment. Complain. And hightail it the hell out of Dodge the first chance she got. She left it to Val to pick up the slack. Adjust.
“But you, nah. You never complained about nothin’. That’s the way you were when you was little.”
Val had once read that compliant first-borns often take behind-the-scenes roles in their professional lives. Many of them become editors. So she had ended up in the nitpicking, hair-splitting profession by design—some divine someone’s design. It couldn’t be that the only thing she had been born and bred to do was to clean up behind others. Act as midwife to anonymous dreams while she stifled her own. She would quit her job as medical editor before they gave her another assignment.
Virginia’s brows squeezed together.
“If you’re trying to say it’s my damned fault that Val’s toes look like they could hug a tree branch some goddamned where in Africa, say it!” She pressed her fingers into her chest.
“Ain’t nobody blaming you for nothin’, ‘specially since I know for a fact that Val loved them Dr. Scholl’s sandals. When they was the style, bet you Val ain’t had no problem with the grip. Did she?” Jack turned to Val and added, “Did you?” His smile was sparsely fanged, his gums an inflamed pink.
“Hah.” Val threw her head back. “I was the only girl who didn’t.”
“See.” Jack fidgeted and leaned back until his shoulders touched the wall behind him. He flicked a tiny barrel of ash off the end of his cigarette. The gray debris floated to the floor.
Virginia’s eyes flared into focus at the sight of Jack’s cigarette. “Jack Sprat! Get your nimble ass upstairs and turn down my bed. Now.”
“But it’s not….”
“If you don’t get out of my sight by the count of three, you are going to wish to God you were hop-the-fuck-scotching over a hot candlestick.”
Jack rattled to his feet. “I don’t know why you’re all the time threatening me. It’s not nice. And it ain’t necessary, if you want to know the truth.” He clicked out of the room.
“And, Jack, dear,” Virginia cooed. “If you got any more cigarettes, you can hand ‘em over right quick.”
“This is the last one,” he whined. “I found it tipped out in the ashtray, so I didn’t think you wanted it.”
“Since when do I pay you to think?”
“You don’t pay me at all.” Jack stopped in his tracks, the raggedy nap of hair at the base of his neck facing Virginia. Slowly he turned to face her at the brilliance of this thought: “But we are engaged. Show Val your ring.”
Virginia flapped her left hand in the air as if she were trying to swat a fly off course. A dull gleam from a hockable gem flashed into and then out of view. As Virginia heaved herself up onto the stool that Jack had just vacated, her buttocks flinched as they came into contact with the trace of heat he had left behind. Jack walked out of the room and up the stairs. “I hope that dumb bunny washed his ass last night,” she said thoughtfully.
“Smells like he tried waving a rag around down there,” Val offered. Her heart thundered with the treachery she was about to commit. Virginia cocked her legs open and mimed a fierce crotch-scrubbing, as she teetered on her seat. “I bet he didn’t get into all the creases and everything, though.”
“You’re not responsible for my hammer toes.”
“Why the hell not? I’m guilty of every damned thing else, ‘specially to hear Dora tell it. She went off about her heart murmur last time I saw her. She blew so tough, I felt like she had punched me upside the head. I swear, a knot the size of a golf ball popped up right here,” she knocked her skull at the temple, “after that little ass kickin’. After that, I just took to rolling out of bed in the morning and raising my hand to God and saying, ‘Guilty as charged,’ right off the bat, each and every morning. ‘Cause in the end, goddamn it, I am. But at least you can find me.
“I didn’t go the fuck running off to some damned island somewhere to forget about you. Or start over. And neither did Jack Sprat. That ole simple-ass bitch ain’t got a lick of sense, but you’ve always known where to find him He ain’t never denied y’all nothin’. Do you hear that. Nothing.”
Virginia looked down into her crotch as though she were seeing for the first time Jack’s loosened crotch crud blackening a washcloth.
“Now, if he would just keep his kibbles and bits clean, maybe I could deal!” She laughed out loud at the particularity of her concern. “Jiminy Click It! The cornbread!” She jumped up and headed into the kitchen.
“You’re sick, Mom.”
“Ain’t we all, chile?” The voice was deep. Knowing. “And there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it either, ‘cept take our Prozac® and get on with it.”
The intimate clashings of sound suggested that Virginia was cutting the cornbread—into squares or wedges, who knew?—and then halving them across the middle and salving the intentional wounds with butter. Val, drawn by the promising sounds, moved to the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. She watched as her mother bit the tip off a wedge of cornbread. She stood communion-ready as Virginia shoved the bitten butt of yellow into her mouth.
“There’s not a goddamned thing we can do about this….” Virginia waved her hand around the kitchen. “Except maybe hook up with a hot, juicy piece of ass every once in a while.” Virginia spoke around the hot jumble of yellow crumbs.
Val snorted and then tried to control her breathing around the crumbed turbulence in her mouth and nasal passages.
“Lifestyles of the don’t-ask-for-much-and-satisfied.” Virginia nodded her head curtly over the announcement. “Yes, indeed. That’s me.”
“So Jack is your hot piece of ass?” Val felt surprisingly free as she coughed out the words.
“Shit no! That fool just kept turning up like a trick penny. Pony? Whatever, chile. Crossing my path every which way I went. So one day, coming out of the Knotty Bar—back in the day, when I halfway had my shit—my physical shit at least—together, I seen him again. I stopped and said, ‘Are you going to follow me for the rest of your natural life?’”
Here, Virginia looked up coquettishly, as though she were still a young woman with wile to wield. She snapped back to her present-day senses and started laughing. She covered her eyes with balled fists and shook her head with happy sorrow.
“You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t somethin’. ‘Is you gonna follow me for the rest of your natural life?’” Virginia wagged her head with comic commitment to each dropped syllable.
“What did he say?”
“‘Yeah. If it takes you that long to figure out that I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’ With his teeny, tiny little voice. A stone-cold alcoholic. Shell-shocked as shit to boot. I always thought I could maybe have at least got me a handsome devil with some scratch. I mean, you wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was sayin’ a taste back in the day.” Virginia waved her hand, dismissing the residue of days gone by.
“But I just said to myself, ‘Seems like this is who God wants me to be with. And,” here she raised her hand, testifying. “What God hath joined together, let not this drunk-ass bitch put asunder.”
And with that, Val was miraculously cleared for takeoff.