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The Demerits of Missing Toes – 2014 Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition Winner

Nobody knew how the Marshalls got that trailer on that building in the first place. Hell, the Marshalls didn’t know how the Marshalls got that trailer on that building in the first place. If anybody remembers anything about it a’tall, they’re not talking. Though Clarence Marshall, family patriarch and present-your-honor the night it happened, figures that it was the business end of some red-blooded drinkin’ and drivin’. And back before the kids came along, they used to get drunk. A lot. Blackout drunk. Wake-up-the-next-day-with-the-house-on-top-of-the-goddamned-bank drunk.

 

Most landlords would have probably evicted the Marshalls long ago, and I’m pretty sure Arthur Castlerock would have too if anybody could figure out how to get the damn thing down. Since nobody could, he just started charging them rent, and the Marshalls just started paying it. The deal didn’t seal without some amount of dispute, deals rarely do. But at the end of it all, the trailer became part of the Marcott County Bank building. It probably violated the hell out of just about any code you could dig up, but nobody was digging anything up, and the only laws most folks concerned themselves with were the laws of physics. But the Marshalls always had a special relationship with the law, physical or otherwise, and the law had spoken.

 

I met Titus Marshall when I was two weeks shy of seventh grade and visiting my dull aunt and uncle down the country. When I came upon him, he was with a pack of kids wandering around Bloody Creek at the edge of town looking for a toe that had gone missing.

 

“What’cha looking for?” I asked politely.

 

A small fellow, about my age, pointed at a big boy sitting by the creek, “My brother’s toe. It came off right about here.”

 

“A toe? The kind grows out of your foot?”

“Yeah, that kind. You seen a toe around here?”

 

“Which toe is it?” I asked.

 

“The one he lost, fool,” said the boy.

 

“No, I mean which toe on the foot?”

 

“Hey Jake,” the boy yelled.

“Yeah?”

“Which toe you lose?”

“The one’s missin’, stupid,” he yelled back.

 

“Naw, like which one on the foot?”

“Oh,” Jake looked down, “Pinkie.”

“You sure?”

 

“Pretty sure.”

 

The boy turned back to me, “It’s the pinkie. You’d know to see it.”

 

I said that I hadn’t seen any toes today, but if I saw one, I’d bring it on by. I asked how it went missing.

 

“Well Jake was choppin’ up bullfrogs with the hoe–”

 

“Chopping up bullfrogs?” I asked.

 

“Dead ones. Anyway he was standing too close and must’ve chopped off his toe along with.”

 

I was impressed. “Why isn’t he screaming?”

 

“Happened so fast, he never felt a thing.”

 

I told him that it might be easier to keep track of your toes if you did less chopping. He said yeah, but what could you do? Life had to be lived, toes or no toes.

“I suppose,” I said.

“Well, it was good talking to you, but I’d best get back to finding that toe. You see a toe, bring it on by,” and he was gone.

 

That night, when Aunt Marcie asked me if I’d managed to make any friends, I gave an account of my adventures. My mother said that I wasn’t to make friends with the sort of people who lose toes. I asked her how you could know if anybody would lose a toe until they did. She said you could just tell.

 

“But how?” I asked.

 

“Don’t play with those boys again,” growled my father, “Mind your mother.”

I said I’d mind as best I could, but I maintained it was pretty hard to predict toe-losing propensities in anyone until it was too late. Aunt Marcie explained later that people who went around chopping up dead bullfrogs were probably more likely to lose toes than those who didn’t and that if I paid attention to the things people did, it might help me to identify the kinds of people who tended to lose things like toes.

 

I had started the next day with the fullest intentions of minding my mother like I told everybody I would, and sat myself outside with my uncle’s blind dog Clovis with the bright idea of teaching it to fetch, figuring that would round up some chuckles, if nothing else. But Clovis’s flat refusal to use any of her remaining senses gave me a case of selective memory, and by two-thirty, my mother’s Absolute Law started to look more like a Friendly Suggestion, and I found myself on my way back to the creek. I did a pretty good job convincing myself that since there weren’t any rules on going to the creek, no rules were being broken. If there happened to be kids at the creek, toeless or otherwise, I couldn’t much help that, and it would be impolite not to say a friendly hey.

As it turned out, the boy I had met yesterday was there, and this time he was alone, building a small fort out of twigs. I recognized him immediately. He was wearing the same clothes.

 

“Hey,” I said politely.

“Hey yourself,” he said.  

“Just wondering if you ever found that toe.”

 

“Oh, that? Naw, we never did find it.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No worries. Life’s just like that sometimes.” He traced a pattern in the dirt thoughtfully with his index finger for a few seconds, “You still got all your toes?”

 

“Yeah.”

“That’s good,” said the boy thoughtfully, “Yeah… Keep ‘em if you can. What’s your name?”

 

“Laurie.”

 

“Laurie? I never met a boy named Laurie.”


“It’s short for Lawrence,” I said, “It was my grandfather’s name.”

“What was your grandma’s name, Stan?” He laughed, “I’m Titus. My parents got some sense. You can’t make fun of my name.”

I told him Tight Ass would work just fine. He rolled his eyes.


“Tight Ass.” I chuckled at my genius, and received a sock on the arm.

“You still got all your toes?” I asked.

 

“So far,” Titus said.

 

“You think you’re gonna lose any?”

 

“No plans to.”

“Then you should come by the house. We’re here for the week. I can ask my Aunt Marcie to make shepherd’s pie.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“You’ll like it.”

Titus said he probably would, since he liked a good dose of pie, and that he’d bring Jake, who was also a fan. I explained that I wasn’t supposed to associate with the likes of folks who couldn’t even hang on to their own toes. A shadow passed over his face, and he said if Jake weren’t welcome, he weren’t welcome either, simple as that. We speculated on the demerits of missing toes until Titus had the bright idea that maybe my parents meant that I wasn’t supposed to fraternize with Marshalls.

“What are Marshalls?” I asked.

 

“Us.”

 

“What’s wrong with Marshalls?”

 

Titus said he didn’t know specifically what was wrong with Marshalls. Sure, they lost toes from time to time, but who didn’t? Sure, sometimes they liked to get drunk down’t the legion, or re-market borrowed shopping carts, or accidentally set fires (usually after coming back from the legion), but truthfully, he said, it was more likely about where they lived than anything.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

 

“Downtown on top of the bank.”

 

I tried to picture that, and failed.

“The bank downtown yonder. It’s the only one. You can’t miss it.”

 

“And you live on top of it?” The idea fascinated me.

 

“Yup. We got a trailer on the roof.”

Titus had a strange habit of pronouncing roof ruf. I couldn’t figure out if he was kidding or not. That was something I was starting to like about Titus Marshall. You couldn’t tell if the fool was kidding or not. The things he said were so far stupid, they cycled back around to wise, like those riddles inside the chinese cookies. Love is better than hate. Holy shit, cookie. You’re goddamned right it is. I mean, it’s so obvious, but I never really thought about it that way before.

 

“We’re not from here,” I explained, “We’re just in town visiting my aunt and uncle for the week. My parents have no idea where you live, so it won’t matter.”

“If you have family here, they’ve already told your folks all about us.” Probably, he speculated, years before I was even born. I told him there was enough stuff going on in my own family right now to keep their jaws too busy to worry about a trailer on a roof, like my sister living with some guy she wasn’t even married to. That was big-ticket gossip. It was all anybody talked about these days. Titus said if you think about it, it’s like that with every family, and yet somehow every family in the county found the time to talk about the Marshalls.


While I chewed on that, Titus asked me if I liked to read.

“Sure do,” I said, “I just finished the Knightfall story-arc.”

“No, fool, those are comics. I mean do you like to read?”

 

Titus claimed he had read all the classic adventure books that I had always just assumed you avoided until school made you read them: Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, The Jungle Book.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said, “The Jungle Book is a movie.”

“Yeah, but before it was a movie, it was a book. Movie’s bullshit anyway. You need to read the book to really git it.”

I thought about that and shrugged. “Naw,” I said, “I guess I don’t like to read.”

“I like to read as much as I can so I can study on how to write a book someday,”

“Write a book?”

 

“Yeah, why not?”

 

“About what?”

 

“Philosophy.”

 

“What’s that?” I asked.

 

“Reckoning on things.”

 

“You mean like whether or not the last Simpsons was any good?”

 

No, Titus explained, it wasn’t much like that at all. It was more along the lines of whether God was really just a space alien or whether everybody that looked at a blue chair saw the same thing. Stuff like that, he said, was what a philosopher reckoned on the most.

 

“Is that what you want to do when you grow up,” I asked, “be a philosopher?”

 

“Figuring to,” he said.

“Damn, dude, God ain’t no space alien though.”

 

“How do you know?” Titus asked, “You ever met God?”

 

“Well, no,” I said, “And who cares? Say you’re right. I still gotta go back to school in two weeks even if He is.”

 

Titus told me that I had just been philosophizin’.

 

“I’m gonna be a firefighter when I grow up,” I said proudly.

 

“You gonna drive one of those big red cocksuckers and put out fires, huh?”

 

“Yup,” I said, “I think that’s the bravest job a person can do. Braver than being a philosopher.”

“Tell that to Socrates,” Titus said with a smile.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

 

“Well ol’Socrates was this Greek philosopher back about a million years ago. Socrates never told a lie. Didn’t believe in it. He told the truth no matter what. But people don’t much like to hear the truth.”

“That’s dumb,” I said, “ Ain’t people always saying ‘Tell me the truth’?”

Titus said, “The next time your teacher asks if you wanna learn or sit there and daydream all day, tell her the truth and see what happens. Grownups only tell you they want to hear the truth so they can figure out how bad to punish you. Anyway, Socrates always told the truth, no matter how much it pissed people off. And the government decided they had to get rid of’im because he was makin’ everybody look really bad. So they killed him.”

“How did they kill him?” I asked.

“Made him drink hemlock. That’s poison. Plato was another really smart guy. Probably the smartest that ever lived. He was Socrates’ student, and it wasn’t long after ol’Socrates was killed that the shifty bastard came up with the Noble Lie.”

“What’s that?”

 

“He says that it’s ok to lie as long as the lie helps folks.”

 

I thought about this, “You mean like when you tell a girl she looks pretty even when she looks like a truck?”

 

“Something like that, yeah,” Titus said. He didn’t know too much about it. As far as he figured though, when your teacher is murdered because he’s too honest, you better get busy on preaching lie-telling. A noble lie, Titus figured, was the easiest way to do that and still let people hang on to the feeling they get when they do the right thing.

 

I was astounded. The most thought I’d ever put into lying was to figure out how much I could get away with. I wasn’t totally sure what noble meant, but I was fairly confident it wasn’t that. “And you wanna do this when you grow up?” I asked, “Shoot, isn’t it just easier to grow up and do what your daddy does?”


“I don’t want to do what my daddy does,” Titus said with a laugh.

I asked him what his daddy did and he told me his daddy didn’t do anything but drink at the legion and stick trailers on rufs.

I told him that was something. He just gave me a weird look and said I didn’t git it. I was getting tired of hearing about all the things I didn’t git. I gave up trying and asked him how the trailer got on the roof of the bank in the first place.

 

“Nobody really knows. They just woke up on the ruf one day. That’s just something happens in our family. Folks wind up on top of things and nobody really knows how they got there.”

“Don’t you remember?” I asked.
No, Titus said. It’d been up there longer than he’d been alive. From what he understood, one of the more industrious Marshall kin, in charge of operating a large crane at work the day it all happened, decided to knock off early with a pint of whiskey. Only problem was, he forgot to leave work after he knocked off of it and wound up driving the crane out past the farms where the trailer used to sit. By that time, Clarence was well beyond drunk himself and as near as the two of them can figure, they must have somehow hitched the trailer to the crane, towed it into town and hoisted it on top of the bank. All Clarence really knew was that he woke up the day after all the shit and terror with a dreadful hangover and a damn good view of town. And that, Titus explained, was why people didn’t like the Marshalls. They did things like live on rufs, lose toes, re-market shopping carts, become philosophers. Things like that Just Happened to the Marshalls. I said it wasn’t a good reason to not like somebody. Titus said there weren’t many good reasons not to, when it came right down to it, but folks like my family always found a way to justify it.

 

“Like my family?” I asked, “I told you. My parents don’t know you. And they always told me that you should never…” I searched for the word, “… that you should never be judgmenting of people. They harp on about it all the time, so you don’t have to worry about them. They’re cool.”

 

“Your parents are talking about folks in a courtroom or foreigners who don’t speak English saying somethin’ stupid by accident. When it comes to honkey rednecks living life the way they see fit, folks like your parents are the first ones to holler about how us living life by our own business is their business.”

 

I bristled. “What, did you read that in a friggin’ book too? Is there some book telling you how my parents are when you haven’t even met them?”

 

“I don’t need no books to tell me that if my brother ain’t welcome around your place just because his toe is missing, then I’m probably not welcome there either.”

 

“My folks just don’t want me losing a toe too,” I said, “that’s all.”

“This ain’t about toes,” Titus said, “Your folks probably let you run around with all kinds of people who do fool things and don’t think nothing of it.”

Of course not, I almost said but wait now… This was something. I thought back to last year when that jackass Clint Hayward flung his idiot self off our pump-house. He was aiming for the pool but missed it by about five feet. He spent the rest of the summer between his house and ours being waited on by my mother and showing off his cast. A cast that, by the time school was back in, was so covered in signatures, it looked like the wall of the old mill after the ninth-graders had been at it. And what about Carrie Pernette? Running laps in phys-ed when she turned around to wave to her friends and barreled smack into a box horse, busting her leg, arm and nose? My mother practically had us married in her mind even though she was such a klutz, she’d probably set the house on fire getting up a bowl of Cheerios.

 

“So accidents are the same as losing a toe?”

“You think that shit yesterday wasn’t an accident?” It was impressive, the calm way in which he cussed, like he was checking the TV Guide. “You think Marshalls wake up saying to themselves, ‘It’s a mighty fine day to lop off a toe.’? Like we deserved it?”

“It’s not that anybody deserves to have bad things happen,” I said, “It’s just that with some people, you’re not surprised.”

 

“That’s everybody. It’s not fair that people like your parents are always changing their mind on what’s ok because of who someone’s daddy is.”

 

I was getting frustrated. Titus’s tricking way of taking my parents out of context was making me begin to doubt their sincerity. Telling me that he knew my parents better than I did was annoying enough, but that he was making sense in a way I’d never seen before was just too much. And sitting there, thinking about it, about the trending topics of their gossip, about who could be trusted in our hometown and who couldn’t? Yup. The bastard was making dreadful good sense.

 

The Folks Who Can’t Be Trusted demographic at home was the mountain folk, who townies affectionately called ‘Roneys’, named for one of the larger family groups that made its home on the North Mountain. And up to now I had assumed the All-Roneys-Are-Bad-Roneys phenomenon was the result of some mysterious, corrupting influence found at higher altitudes. But it was beginning to dawn on me that the only authority I had on their inherent badness came from people who didn’t even associate with them, people like my folks. All that trouble they allegedly caused was only evident in idle gossip and almost never in concrete example. One incident stood out in my mind like a stronghold against the growing fog of doubt, regarding a stunt a Roney kid pulled during a math test last March. He had taken off his shirt and written dirty words on his chest in permanent marker. The teacher had called him revolting. That word stood out more than the act itself. Revolting. And I remember thinking it was not only revolting, it was typical. Typical of Roneys to do Roney-fool things like write cuss words on themselves, typical of Roneys to be revolting, somehow forgetting that Clint Hayward spent the better part of that same year in and out of detention for chronic fuckery, most of which was at least that mindlessly stupid. At the time, I guess I thought it was somehow different. Now I wasn’t so sure. I was starting to worry that maybe I had the wrong folks. And if the wrong folks were actually the folks right here at home and I hadn’t even seen it, where did that leave me? Sitting by a creek with a smug asshole who had my number and knew it, that’s where it left me.

 

But at that age, and in that time, I didn’t have the words to express that. So I did the best I could with the words I had. “You take that back,” I said.

 

“There ain’t nothing to take back, son” Titus said calmly, “Because it’s the truth. I can tell by your face it’s the truth.”

“Aw fuck right off with that shit,” I said, giving the f-word its first test-drive. It felt impressive and I took it out for another spin. “Fuck you.”

 

“Come on,” Titus said, “I’m saying how most folks are if you watch what they do instead of listen to what they say. And if your folks told you to avoid us all because ol’Jake lost a toe, then your folks are most folks. That’s all I’m sayin’,” He looked at me strangely, “I’m not saying you’re like that. I don’t even really know you. I’m saying you can’t know what it’s like to meet folks like that unless you come from folks like us. So when I say I don’t want to come over, I mean I don’t want to come over. It ain’t nothin’ on you. You ain’t your parents. At least you ain’t yet.”

 

I don’t quite remember who started it but the next thing I knew, we were rolling around on the ground beating the living cobalt blue out of each other. I was strong, but Titus was fast, and when it was all over, each of us was sporting a black eye. My nose was bleeding and Titus was favouring his right arm.

 

We didn’t say much for a good few minutes. I was confused, angry and hurt. I hated my parents. I hated that jackass Clint Hayward. I hated Socrates and I hated myself for not knowing The Jungle Book was an actual book, and not just a movie with a weird name. But most of all, I hated Titus Marshall.

“You busted up much?” I asked.

 

“Ain’t too bad. You’re gonna want to put some bacitracin on that mess before your ma sees it,” he said.

 

“Probably,” I said.

We sat on for a few more minutes, but everything felt different and there didn’t seem much else to talk about other than the Batman Knightfall story arc (which Titus had also read, in his spare time, of course). I had the stubborn sense of wanting to stay and talk to him, while simultaneously wanting to get the hell out of there. I felt like something needed fixing so badly it was probably too broke for fixing.

 

Finally I gave up and said I best be getting on home. Titus said he reckoned so. As I walked up the bank, I looked back a few times but Titus had returned to his twig fort as if the last hour had just been another hour. I walked at a pace to beat the devil, chasing the sun west, dreaming up noble lies to take home.