Laughter as Medicine, second-place winner: 'This little piggy went to market'

Feb. 5, 2013 at 5:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 5, 2013 at 8:06 p.m.

Peggy Titt

Peggy Titt

Editor's note: The Victoria Advocate, Victoria College and Victoria Public Library sponsored a short story contest, "Laughter as Medicine," in connection with author Sherman Alexie appears as a Lyceum speaker. The three best will receive an autographed copy of Alexie's "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" and have their stories printed in the Victoria Advocate. This story is the second-place winner. The third-place winner was printed Tuesday. The first-place winner will be printed Thursday.

Oma Ninetoes had a jar on her kitchen shelf that caused her grown children to flinch in revulsion every time they opened her pantry door.

"Mama, you still got that thing? It's gross and disgusting and it's high time you throw it away. Who keeps their own pickled toe?"

"Leave me alone about my toe. I went through agony to lose that toe, and I can keep it if I please."

"But Ma, it's rotten. And it's creepy to see that thing every time we're in your kitchen."

"Then stay outta my kitchen."

I discovered the detached digit when my cousins and I initiated our for-profit beauty salon. La Olde Treatment was concocted to ease the aches and pains of our aging, ailing aunts, uncles and grandparents. We'd stake out a space at family gatherings and set up shop. Prominently displayed were our Schedule of Services and Fees and the Tip Jar. Relatives and guests readily forked over small bills and change for a shoulder and neck massage at the hands of a 7-year-old, painted nails - mani and pedi - embellished with tri-color polish, a guacamole facial, or a hand or foot sugar scrub.

At a family reunion the year I was 12, we donned our custom-embroidered scrubs after lunch and began to hustle business. Aunt Beep was first in line, requesting a manicure, foot scrub and pedicure, timed to coincide with lunch clean-up.

My mother's Cousin Vesta came next, her hands rough and red from dishwashing, but she wanted a scalp massage to relieve her tension headache.

All afternoon, the relatives straggled in, chattering about how full they were and what a treat it was to get their first massage.

When the masseuse's hands wore out, we'd switch jobs.

Finally, Oma Ninetoes stood in the doorway.

"Which of you lucky kids wants to give old Oma a foot scrubbin' and a pedicure?"

My cousin Lucille, all organized and business-like, picked up her clipboard and looked around the room. One of the little cousins was arranging nail polish bottles by color. The other little one was rhythmically kneading Aunt Corinne's shoulders.

Cousin Eliot, the youngest cousin and the only boy, hadn't worked up the ranks to hands-on service yet. Cousin Lucille turned her patronizing smile to me as if I'd lost the last seat in a game of musical chairs.

"OK, Francis, this is your customer."

I waved Oma Ninetoes to the rolling office chair we used for a salon seat and Oma heaved herself into it. As I scooped out a serving spoonful of the gloppy, homemade sugar scrub, Oma Ninetoes removed her clunky tan shoes with the thick foam soles and rolled down her fleshy-colored knee-high cotton stockings. As she tugged off the first stocking, I realized that here was one special challenge. This foot resembled the root of an ancient oak tree, the wizened toes twisted around each other and the gnarled, thickened toenails white and flaky.

Oma Ninetoes pulled off the second stocking - and I almost fell off my stool. Instead of a fat sausage-like appendage, only the stump of a big toe waggled at me. Thinking "How can I polish that?'' I shot a look at Oma Ninetoes and squawked, "What happened? How awful! Where's your toe?"

Struggling to keep from gagging, I quickly slid my eyes from the toe to the scrub basin, to Oma Ninetoes' face, and blurted, "You want me to paint that too?"

My cousins, snickering at their posts, diverted their gawking eyes back to their tasks.

"Oh, Oma Ninetoes," I stuttered, "I mean.It's just.How?...I'm sorry!"

Her face was a crinkled mosaic of sadness, humor, sorrow and compassion.

"That nubbin's been that way for 47 years. Don't even think twice about it no more. Had a bad infection and the doctor just whacked it clean off. But no, you don't need to put no paint on that one; it's already got it."

"What do you mean?"

"In the pantry, in that jar the grown folks keep wantin' to throw away. A little shriveled up, but still got its Christmas red toenail. Now, let's put a purty pink paint on the rest of these piggies."

Peggy Titt had her big toe amputated on Jan. 2. She painted the toenail on the ill-fated toe red.



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