TWO LEFT FEET
Second foot first
The body part washed up behind your sister’s house last Tuesday. It was a foot, an all-by-itself man’s foot in a nice gray athletic shoe, carried by the ocean from who-knows-where right up and into your sister Wendy’s backyard.
It happened almost four months to the day from when your own troubles started. That was also, as it happens, on a Tuesday, which was when Ron finally came back home after the poker night with his friends that was supposed to have ended at 11:00 the previous Saturday night.
Your troubles aren’t as exciting as Wendy’s. Cheating husband. Severed foot. Guess which story everyone else wants to hear? But the fact that everyone but you has lost interest in them doesn’t mean your problems have gone away.
Your troubles aren’t as exciting as Wendy’s. Cheating husband. Severed foot. Guess which story everyone else wants to hear?
You just can’t imagine, Wendy says. I thought it was a piece of driftwood. And then …
She’s told you this part five times already. Honey, I’m sorry, you say, but I’ve got to go get the kids now. You just hang in there, you say, and I’ll talk to you soon, okay?
You called her hoping to talk about your own issues. But they never came up. You have this meeting with Ron in less than three hours, and how are you going to manage it now?
Two more weeks, Jane, he says. That’s all I’m asking is just that you give me two more weeks, ok?
You look at him, at Ron, your ex, who hasn’t paid child support in over two months, and you know what you should say, which is, sorry, no way, Ron, a deal is a deal, Ron, and our deal was that you’d give me the money by tomorrow. But you’ve never said such a thing to him before. Before the foot came along, Wendy had been coaching you, prodding and prompting you until saying no way to Ron is something you should be able to do on autopilot. It turns out, though, that there is after all a difference between Wendy’s hypothetical Ron and the real one, so that now, in the face of Ron himself, eleven years of history shoves its way in to undo all of Wendy’s hard work. You never could say no to Ron, and that is in fact the real problem, the underlying reason why you’re in this situation where you’re supposed to say no to Ron now.
If Wendy had just managed to find the wherewithal to go over it all with you one more time, then at least you’d have a chance, because then you’d be caught in the middle, wouldn’t you, between the opposing gravitational pulls of Wendy’s nonono and Ron’s yesyesyes, and in that situation it’s always a tossup, isn’t it, what will actually happen in the end, so there’s always at least a chance that things will go the way they should. Without Wendy, you might as well just forget it, give up and give Ron whatever he wants, all the time he wants and more.
But Wendy has, ever since the foot thing, been kind of distracted, prone, for one thing, to changing the subject to the foot pretty quickly into any conversation. Yesterday, when you met her for coffee at the little café down the street from the hospital, she kept doing this thing where, instead of really looking at you, or even at her latte, her eyes were skittering everywhere, looking up, down, and especially behind her, as if another foot might, at any minute, sneak up on her or drop from the ceiling. Which is understandable, you suppose, under the circumstances. But you can't help wanting to point out that all the energy Wendy’s been expending on the foot is getting both her and the foot exactly nowhere, since the foot, lopped off at the ankle somewhere probably far out at sea, is so far beyond anyone’s help it’s not even funny. Whereas you, ok, yes, it’s true, you may not be the most promising case anyone’s ever taken on, but at least you’re still alive, and hey, while there’s breath, there’s hope, right?
That’s all I’m asking is just …
That’s all I’m asking, he said, is just that you give me two more weeks, ok? Which now that you think about it is horrifically bad syntax, and the scary thing is that you’re so used to it from him, you didn't even flinch when he said it. It’s only now, when the words have moved beyond the space between you and Ron and have come all the way into your possession, that you realize, wow, the guy just really is a poor communicator, even on this fundamental level of having the capacity to string words together the way you’re supposed to.
Upon which realization you can hardly help having a subsequent realization that this is the person you chose to marry. That for the entire ten years and three days of that marriage you had this identity as a woman who wanted to be married to this guy who was either too dumb or too lazy ever to master the basic rules of syntax.
That for the entire ten years and three days of that marriage you had this identity as a woman who wanted to be married to this guy who was either too dumb or too lazy ever to master the basic rules of syntax.
This is, in other words, to some degree your own fault. If you decide at one point in your life that it’s a good idea to be married to a guy who says things like that’s all I’m asking is just that you give me two more weeks, ok, then you have to live with the consequences.
Ron’s dad is still intact
Properly speaking, the foot that you earlier referred to as having been found in Wendy’s backyard wasn’t quite in her backyard; it was on the beach just beyond her backyard. It was a left foot, some guy’s left foot, and the sneaker it was wearing was a gray New Balance running shoe, just like the ones Ron’s father wears, so that, when you first heard about it, you could only picture it as Ron’s father’s foot, as having spent most of its life attached to this tall-and-skinny, really bony-kneed, shorts-wearing-even-in-the-winter, unsyntactical-son-producing guy, and even after you found out it was too small to be Ron’s father’s foot, size 10 while he wears an 11, you were still sort of surprised, when you saw him at your parents’ house last Thursday, that Ron’s father still had both of his feet. And in a way you were kind of sorry about it too, not that you would actively wish some kind of horrific foot-losing experience on Ron’s father, but it certainly would have been interesting for you if the foot had turned out to belong to someone you knew, and then too it would almost certainly have been pretty traumatic for Ron if his dad had lost a foot, and you haven’t quite risen above the whole experience of the failed marriage enough yet that you can do otherwise than take pleasure in learning of any bad experience that befalls Ron.
Cara, Ethan, look, it’s granddaddy’s foot, Wendy found it in her backyard, isn’t that something!
Then you start imagining what it would have been like to tell the children if it had been Ron’s father’s foot: Cara, Ethan, look, it’s granddaddy’s foot, Wendy found it in her backyard, isn’t that something! And you start to laugh and laugh, and you fall out of the chair you’re laughing so hard, and Ethan tells you the next morning that the whole episode was a little bit worrying and that he was about to call 911 if you hadn’t finally stopped when you did.
Hot potato, hot potato. Hot potato, hot potato. Hot potato, hot potato, potato, potato, potato, potato. Sometimes Cara threatens to call 911 about you too. Mama, she says, if you don’t let me have some more ice cream, I’m going to call 911 and have you put in jail. The problem is, her capacity to land you in trouble is greater than she realizes. Child custody is never a sure thing, and although there are times, specific brief moments in time, when you wish nothing more than that their daddy would come and take them off your hands, you all the same know that really you’d rather cut off your own foot than give them up.
Cold spaghetti, cold spaghetti. Cold spaghetti, cold spaghetti. Cold spaghetti, cold spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti. Last week, Cara fell off the couch and the next morning she had a black eye. Two days later, she tripped going up the front stairs and wound up with a big bruise across the bridge of her nose. You felt the need to explain it when you dropped her off at preschool; two marks of violence to her face in as many days and the parents recently separated, mom left to cope all on her own; you can’t expect them not to wonder. Yeah, said her teacher, we did ask her what happened to her eye and she said she fell off the sofa.
So it’s okay. But what if she’d still been angry with you over the no second helpings of ice cream and had thought to tell them something else instead?
Although there are times, specific brief moments in time, when you wish nothing more than that their daddy would come and take them off your hands, you all the same know that really you’d rather cut off your own foot than give them up.
Hot potato, hot potato. Hot potato, hot potato …. Cara is dancing around the living room, wiggling and giggling. There’s so much more room for her to do it now that Ron has finally come and taken away most of his furniture. He wanted to take the stereo too, but Cara intervened, said, but Daddy, Daddy, how can I dance to my songs if we don’t have a music player any more?
Cara’s favorite music is so inanely awful that you wonder how these grown men, the Wiggles, can stand to sing it without killing themselves. But right now, watching your daughter dance to it, you think it’s maybe the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard.
Oh how many feet you meet
One thing that probably needs to be explained is that the foot Wendy found on the beach behind her backyard is actually the second severed male left foot she’s seen this winter. The first foot appeared in December; it washed up on one of the public beaches, where it was found by a family on vacation from Toronto. Wendy is a doctor, an internist, at our local hospital, and when the foot was sent by the police to the path lab for further study, all the doctors on staff were eager to have a look. Wendy, who used to date Dr. Saterjee, the pathologist, was accorded a closer look than most.
The first foot, again hacked or gnawed off at the ankle, again neatly encased in a sneaker, was, just like the second, a size-10 left foot. But this time the sneaker was a Nike. Wendy got to watch as Dr. Saterjee eased the foot out of the Nike. It was, she said, still surprisingly foot-like, pretty normal-looking except for the way it was missing the leg that was supposed to come with it. Dr. Saterjee said, but what would you expect, my plumpkin; it’s had the double advantages of a protective casing and of being pickled in the salty sea. A more surprising thing would have been if it had not looked so much like a regular foot any more.
So what do you think happened to it, asked Wendy. How did it get like this, how did it end up here?
Dr. Saterjee shrugged. There are many possibilities, he said. But they are not my concern. My concern is to ask myself, is this foot, under the physical conditions to which we know it has been subjected, as it should be or not? The answer is that it is, and that is the full extent of what I can tell you.
A quick review of how we got into this pickle
Ron wants time, but you need money. Two more weeks, he says, but in two weeks things will most likely have become truly dire, the mortgage payment late to the point where the bank could start foreclosing, you and the children subsisting on Ramen noodles and water, the car out of gas, maybe the heat shut off too. All of it all so easily averted if Ron would just give you the money when he was supposed to.
You know, he says, you could do something about this too, Jane. You could look for a better-paying job.
That would be easier, you say, if you hadn’t talked me into quitting my job seven years ago to stay home with Ethan. Do you have any idea how hard it is, once you’ve been out of the workforce that long, to—
Ron cuts you off. All I’m saying, he says, is how I can’t give you what I haven’t got.
There are actually a number of perfectly logical explanations
So then Wendy, wandering out onto the beach just beyond her backyard for an early-morning stroll last Tuesday, was the first person on the island to know that there were now two feet.
She called you. Jane, she said, listen, I—
I know, you said, I know, I promise; next time Ron calls I’m going to—
No, Jane listen, she said. I just found another one.
Then she started crying.
Another what? you asked. But she just cried harder.
It was a problem. You have, for the last four months, had to deal with so much: failed marriage, not enough money, sad sad children, but Mom, when, is Daddy coming home? Through it all, every time you thought you were going to crumble, Wendy was there to prop you up. Now she’s had this foot happen to her, and she seems to be saying that as a result she needs you, is calling you up, in short, because she’s counting on you to now become the wall of sisterly strength against which she can lean for support. It would make you want to laugh except that it’s not really funny.
Two feet, Wendy says. How can this be happening, she says. It was somebody’s foot, she says, and now look what it’s come to.
Left foot, left foot, left foot, right
It turns out that there are various rational ways to account for the feet. But they are not the explanations you’d tend to think of first. Wendy, for example, is inclined to view the feet as divine retribution, God’s punishment of her for violating her own code of workplace ethics by having an affair last year with Joe Laxton, her senior nurse. This is not the kind of thing that happens, she says, to people who lead better-organized lives. Your neighbor, Mr. Sakowa, sees it as representing a different kind of retribution. It’s the Mafia, he says, body parts in the water, who else could it be? That the Mafia has never had a particularly active presence here in the South Carolina barrier islands doesn’t deter him from this belief in the slightest.
It’s the Mafia, he says, body parts in the water, who else could it be?
The truth, or at least the most likely truth, according to local law enforcement officials, who, as you might imagine, have been looking into the whole business quite a bit, is that sometimes people fall off of boats into the ocean and, once in the ocean, tend to get eaten, all except for the parts of them that are protectively encased in lace-up footwear. Also that the laws of physics are such that in an ocean current, left feet will go one way and right feet another. The right feet, they say, are probably floating around somewhere off the coast of Florida. And if sneakers had been around that long, they add, we’d most likely have been finding left feet on our island for hundreds of years. The increased incidence of foot-finding now they attribute to a recent uptick in the number of boats fishing in and around the Bermuda Triangle. GPS, says the SLED guy from the main office up in Columbia, that’s probably at the root of it. Used to be people shied away from those parts out of superstition, but now with all this modern technology, they’re getting bold again, feeling closer to being invincible. But folks are always going to fall off boats, and no telling what’ll become of them once they do. Wouldn’t be surprised, he said, ’specially should we have us a good hurricane season, if y’all don’t find yourselves a couple more feet before the year is out.
But listen, maybe, says Ron, we should rethink this whole thing. Because, I mean, the two of us back in the same house, it would if nothing else facilitate the money going further.
It’s just, says Wendy, it’s just that, look, I know it would be bad for anyone, finding a foot like that. But I really do think it’s worse for someone like me.
Why? you ask. It should be easier for you. You’re a doctor. You look at parts of bodies all day; it’s what you signed on for when you went to med school.
Look, I know it would be bad for anyone, finding a foot like that. But I really do think it’s worse for someone like me.
Yeah, but that’s exactly why it’s not easier for me, she says. I’m supposed to be able to fix them. It’s what I think about the hardest all the time: if part of a body is broken, how can I make it better? An unfixable foot feels like a reproach.
Okay, you say, granted. But come on, no doctor can fix everything and everyone all the time. A certain percentage of failure is built into the equation.
That doesn’t mean, she says, that you can just shrug these things off, though. When you come across a hopeless case, it’s supposed to just make you try harder. I can’t help it, she says. I feel like I should be able to fix the foot.
Best foot forward
When Ron left, when he said your marriage was over, it was, at first, like the floor had been kicked out from under you. You felt like you were falling, falling, couldn’t stop, your stomach up in your throat, your legs flailing, clutching at air. Now, though, the idea of him being back in the house is
startling, almost jarring. Your mama has just finished making and hanging the new sky-blue calico curtains for your dining room, and they make the room look twice as light and bright as it used to. What if he comes back and wants to hang his red velvet ones again?
The thing is, he says, I know I told you it wasn’t working between us, but now I’m starting to see that in some ways it kind of was. And I, um, kind of miss you.
The thing I can’t stop thinking about, says Wendy, is whether the guys the feet came from are alive or dead. You know, like, is this foot the last remaining trace of some guy who’s otherwise all gone, or is it just something he somehow lost along the way, and he’s still out there, hobbling along, learning to live without it?
What if that happened to Ron, you ask. What if a shark bit off one of Ron’s feet and then spit it out, and it floated away and he had to learn to live without it?
Wendy laughs, snorts a laugh so hard that some of the wine she’s been drinking comes out through her nose. He wouldn’t have been able to run off so fast with Suzie McGuire, then, would he, she says.
You start laughing too, the image of Ron, trying to be all sly and suave and romantic while hobbling along on one foot, suddenly seeming like the most hilarious thing you ever thought of. He wants to come back, but he left me on his own two feet, you say, and you start laughing even harder, and
so does Wendy. You laugh and laugh and laugh.
I always thought Ron had really ugly feet, says Wendy, and you agree, oh, yes, yes, he did, maybe he’s one person who wouldn’t so much mind losing a foot.
Then he’d just have one foot left, you say.
One left foot, Wendy says. One left foot after his right foot left. She’s laughing so hard now that wine is sloshing out of her glass. She tries to set the glass down but she's convulsing so hard with laughter that her gross motor control is just shot, and the glass, upon being released from her hand, falls and shatters on the floor.
One left foot, Wendy says. One left foot after his right foot left.
You are now laughing so hard your stomach hurts. Oh, oh, you say.
I know, Wendy says.
But don’t worry, you say, when you can sort of breathe normally enough to talk again. You’re about to tell her that you’ve made up your mind, you’re definitely not letting Ron come back. Even if you’re not entirely sure that’s true, you know it’ll make her happy.
Oh, I’m not worried, she says. I’m all acclimated to feet now. Even if I do find another one, I’ll be fine. Just fine.
Me too, you say. Isn’t it great, how fine we both are?
Yeah, she says. And you look at her again, your sister, with red wine dripping out of her nose, and, just like the other day, you laugh so hard you fall out of your chair and lie there laughing, laughing on the floor.
Leslie Haynsworth is an MFA student in fiction at the University of South Carolina,
where she serves as fiction editor for Yemasee and web editor for the USC Arts
Institute. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, The Common
Review, Gulf Stream, Live Oak Review, A River & Sound Review, CrossRoads: A
Southern Culture Annual, and elsewhere. She’s currently working on a satiric
novel about academic life, which is in no way inspired by her own experiences
About “Two Left Feet”: This story grew out of an offbeat news which appeared
in the New York Times in 2008: it was about this island off the coast of Washington
State where three men’s right feet—just the feet, and nothing else—had washed
up in recent months. I moved the setting to my native South Carolina and changed
the three right feet to two left ones, but in many other respects I hewed fairly
closely to the original news item. The biggest challenge in writing the story was
keeping the weird and sensational feet from overshadowing everything else.
I’m one of those people who has something of a natural tendency to write stories
with no plot whatsoever, so being forced to grapple with a plot device as arresting
as this one was a great learning experience.