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No one knows why crystals form in my right big toe. My doctor says they come from things I eat: meat, beer, stuff with fructose. But I’m vegetarian, don’t drink, and don’t have a sweet tooth. Doc also says the crystals normally dissolve, though in my case, they filter out—into my toe, causing inflammation. I have a disease of filtration. But why not an ear or elbow instead of the toe? Doc hasn’t a clue. All I know is that it hurts more than if I bunched together all the times I ever stubbed my toe—and I mean all the toes.
In bed at night, I cup my right foot into the sole of my left foot. It’s like a squirrel curled in a nest. This is the only position that gives me some relief, but it’s not enough. I hardly sleep. When I do, my dreams are brief but frightening. For example, last week I was a prisoner—not in jail but in a camp that had nothing to do with roasted marshmallows or tents by a lake. Filtration camps, they call them.
Slipping my foot into and out of a shoe is excruciating. Weight bearing, nearly impossible. I research extra-wide footwear with roomy fronts to reduce pressure around the toe, purchasing a pair of red, yellow, and green shoes that look like scaled-down jalopies. Now I can walk easier, but I’m still in pain. I can’t concentrate or sit still, and I have a desk job. Work is impossible. I wait for an eviction order, ashamed that life can be upturned by a toe (admittedly the big one) while others struggle with problems far greater than mine.
People laugh when they see me. I worry it’s because I have a disease. Nonsense, Doc says. It’s just the shoes: they’re funny. He makes jokes, like he heard that Ronald McDonald woke up barefoot, and now there’s an APB out for some new clown selling burgers.
Meanwhile, my landlord demands the rent. He doesn’t care that I can’t work: business is business. If that’s a problem, there’s always a cardboard box for a home—his words, not mine. By the way, he adds, can the shoes make waffles?
I use what’s left of my savings on a bodysuit with rainbow polka dots, grease paint, and one of those red bulbous noses shaped ironically like my toe—plus accessories: a bicycle horn with a squeezable bulb that sounds like a hiccup, a mini umbrella on a candy-cane post, and a water squirting boutonnière. I also learn the art of balloon sculpture from the internet. It’s difficult to concentrate through all the pain, but I master a large variety of animals and zany hats. I put up posters in the neighborhood.
Calls flood in. Apparently, there’s no lack of birthday parties, yet a real shortage of qualified entertainers. Kids think it’s wacky the way I walk—or rather hobble. Parents yell bravo. With all the grease paint on my face, no one sees me sweat, grimace, cry. Clients offer me hotdogs and Coke during breaks, stuff that I shouldn’t eat, that I never eat. I roll with the punches. Sometimes I even say, Wise guy, eh? People laugh.
I keep taking the medicine. Doc says be patient. It’s just a matter of time before the crystals dissolve. He wants me to trust him. Be patient.
After four months, the swelling subsides, and the pain in my toe shifts. It’s no longer a hot metal spike. More like a vice grip. I can bear that. I sit at a desk again and tap on the keyboard, ready to return to my regular job, which offers benefits and opportunities to advance. I hang up the suit and box the accessories. There’s still the matter of the shoes. I don’t want to let them go.
What’s with the treads? people ask. Are they better than snowshoes? Do they blink stop, slow, go? They’re comfortable, I respond. And I’m used to them. Besides, Doc says that my disease could flare up any time, even with the right meds and diet, so I need to stay prepared. What better way than to keep the shoes on? When I go to the break room, coworkers won’t look me in the eye. They conceal smirks and guffaws behind coffee cups and Kleenex as they stare at my shoes. I suppose they expect me to pull out my own tissue, a daisy chain of multi-colored, calico patterned hankies.
Sometimes, inside my apartment, I rehearse my routine, spinning dishes or wedging myself in a folding chair I can’t get out of. Who knows when I’ll have to suit up again to make ends meet? But all this makes noise, and the downstairs neighbors complain. My landlord says I need to stop clowning around. He’s given me two warnings. Next time will be an eviction. I’m afraid to twist balloons for fear they’ll pop.
I still haven’t figured out the source of the crystals. It could be the tap water: pipes in our building are rusty. Even if I knew for sure, someone has yet to explain why those crystals filter into my toe. Doc says it doesn’t matter: I’m getting better. You don’t need to understand disease to make it go away, he says. Lighten up. Life could be worse. I’m not sure he takes me seriously. Not that I’d wish pain on anyone, but how would he react to a bright red lightbulb for a toe? I’ll hand him a rubber chicken, plucked of course, and say, Who’s laughing now, wise guy?