Thom Bassett “Keep It In There” [flash fiction]
The winter he turned 13 his in-grown toenail became infected. Each day after school he shut his eyes and pulled the sock away, stuck to the top of his foot by dried blood and pus. Held it to his nose to breathe in the sweet-sick stink.
His mother made him soak the foot at night in her roasting pan filled with scalding water and Epsom salt. She shouldered open the door without knocking and walked almost without a limp into his room to stand near him, her shins pearly in the light cast by the little black and white TV. He could smell the heat coming off the refilled kettle in her hand and hear the small ticking sounds inside it.
She asked how it felt, then pressed the lever that lifted the cap on the kettle’s spout. He breathed hard through his nose and stared at the thick vein across the top of her foot. The vein twitched fast with her heartbeat and that was enough to attract the long green-black fish with chainsaw teeth that ripped her foot away, its poison fins stabbing her calf as it flipped and dove back down through the carpet. Her flesh instantly swelled and turned green-black and cracked open, all the way up to beneath her pale blue nightie.
“How is it?” she asked again. He said nothing, listening to her whimper his name as she fell away.
She shifted her weight from one hip to another. Finally he turned down the basketball game. “Fine,” he reported.
“Keep it in there,” she said, pouring the water over his foot.
The following week he screamed at his teacher when she asked after algebra class why he was limping so bad. It was the first time he called a woman a fucking bitch. He lied without deciding to about the three days of detention he got.
In the years after he moved away it came to him again and again how she whitened her work shoes every morning, hours before her shift, the kitchen smelling of sugary chemicals and instant coffee and menthol cigarettes. Eating Big Macs and she said of out of nowhere the only time her feet didn’t hurt was at the nursing home. The cheap canvas tennis shoes she cut holes in to relieve the pain from calcium growths on her big toes. Wearing them when she trimmed the scrubby hedges in front of the house or repainted his room. His $2.99 gym shoes in ninth grade, pulled from a bin in the Safeway cereal aisle.
She had refused him cowboy boots when he was a boy because, she said, they’d pinch his feet. In his early 40s he lost two nails while hiking and the woman he was living with at the time counted eleven blisters as he slept the night he returned.
Cleaning out her house last year, he found his mother’s high school yearbook: “Love always, Elvis Presley.” In the picture she scrawled across, she looks like the bright-eyed girl on the Little Debbie snack cakes box. The last night in the house he sat on their toilet and used a razor blade to slice calluses from his heels, thinking the whole time the trick is to cut along the length of your wrists, not across.