by Chris Drew

You know those physical problems that aren’t serious but are still pretty embarrassing? For instance, people don’t often die from hemorrhoids, but they’re not usually going to start a conversation about them either. Well, when I was in middle school, I was afflicted with one of those problems. Ingrown toenails. I know. Gross. I don’t know why they happened, or what was wrong with my toes that’s right with everyone else’s. All I know is that by the time I hit the sixth grade, my big toes would swell up on both sides, purple and crusty, and if I so much as brushed them against something, I was brought low with a kind of immediate agony that forty-something me would probably just die from on the spot.

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents back then, who also had feet problems. Not afflictions like mine, but ones that would still probably embarrass people who haven’t yet secured an AARP discount. Luckily for them, they were at the age where talking about your bunions, or gout, or whatever ails you isn’t just okay, it’s what you talk about. So, when I came home one day complaining about how much my toes hurt from running laps in gym class, they knew just what to do. The following week, I was in the office of Doctor Howard Grundman, podiatrist extraordinaire. The only detail I remember about his office is that it had a dusty display case full of antique shoe inserts. The man himself was your typical white-bread doctor, roughly my grandparents’ age, with maybe just a bit more nose hair than a person needs. I’m pretty sure I was the first patient he’d had under the age of thirty in, well, maybe ever. My infection-warmed toes were embarrassing, but so was this.

On my first visit, he took the conservative route. The sides of my toenails growing into the soft flesh had caused the problem, so he simply cut down both sides of each toenail (with some minor local anesthetic), bandaged them, and told me to let them grow out. I could do that. I did do that. For a while, gym class was a breeze. Then one morning I woke up to red toes again. My toenails, it seemed, had it out for me. We went through the nail-trimming procedure twice more, and the results were the same—temporary relief followed by swollen toes that made me walk like the Elephant Man.

Finally, Doc Grundman decided to stop messing around. Adhering to the podiatric version of scorched earth policy, the old shrub-nostriled doctor wanted to drop some surgical napalm: permanent removal of my big toenails. Holy shit. Didn’t I need those for walking or something? Nope, he assured me that they’re purely cosmetic—not even worth the trouble we take to trim them. Before I could object (not that I would—my grandpa was sitting next to me, and I wanted to impress him), he slipped out of the room and came back with the biggest syringe I’d ever seen. You could put horses down with it. My goolies ascended into my torso as I stared, horrified, at this torture instrument. “How long have you been doing this?” I asked Doc Grundman meekly. “What time is it?” he replied. My grandpa laughed. Doc Grundman laughed. I didn’t.

If you’re a secret heroin addict, maybe you know what it’s like to shoot up between your toes. If not, let me tell you, you’re not missing anything. Not only did he stick this fifty-gauge needle into the skin between my big toe and the one next to it, but he sort of set up camp there for a bit. See, he had to make sure every little nerve ending got the sauce, which meant moving the needle around while it was in my foot. I almost passed out. Even my grandpa, who had been in the Army during Korea, looked a little squeamish. Doc Grundman went methodically about his excruciation, breathing deeply, his nose hairs puffing in and out like a sea anemone. After ten or fifteen seconds of the worst pain I’d ever experienced (twice), the front ends of both of my feet went completely dead. Like, Weekend at Bernie’s dead. If I’d tried to walk out, I would’ve ended up on the floor. 

So instead, I got to watch Doc conduct surgery on my feet. He told me I could lie back and stare at the ceiling. That I wouldn’t feel a thing. But come on, now that the pain was over, how could I not look? I was twelve, raised on a steady diet of Friday the 13th movies. This was gonna be good. And I wasn’t disappointed. With my own eyes, I watched this man with the party favor nose slide a scalpel under my toenail and move the blade through the thick layer of keratin. Blood ran down both sides of my toe onto a well-placed surgical sponge, and Doc Grundman moved the knife’s edge from side to side, slicing the nail loose from whatever connective tissue it had depended on for the last twelve years. After he finished the untethering, he grabbed a pair of pliers that, up to that point, I’d somehow managed to miss entirely. “This might be a little gross,” he said, clamping the business end of the pliers onto the white edge of my emancipated toenail. I gripped the arms of the chair. My grandpa leaned in. Doc Grundman pulled firmly on the nail, and it slipped out of its bed noiselessly, much longer than I’d ever imagined, and trailing a few red tendrils behind it. For a split second, the tissue beneath the nail seemed frozen, wet and gray and shiny. Then, blood poured in from all sides, and Doc Grundman slapped some gauze on it. “That went well,” he said. My grandpa’s face was white. My jaw bulged as I ground my teeth. “Now we’ve just got to kill the root.” Kill the root? Like some sort of satanic ritual? Before I could ask, he reached toward his instrument tray and retrieved a long, wooden stick with a fluff of cotton at the end. A Q-tip on steroids. He dipped the cotton into a small brown bottle and when he pulled it out, a thick caramel goo covered it. He gently removed the gauze from my toe (the blood still ran, but slowly, having already begun to clot) and without any fanfare, shoved the Q-tip so far down into the hole the nail had left that I thought it might poke out of my heel. He worked it around, much like he had the needle, then replaced the gauze and wrapped the toe up in a bandage the size of a light bulb. “Now for the other one,” he said. And my grandpa and I watched the whole process again.

I got out of gym class for a month while my toes healed. And of course, I pulled them out of my shoes to gross out my friends as often as possible. Some of my teachers were even fascinated. True to Doc Grundman’s word, my toenails never grew back, and once those bloody gaps healed, they were replaced by the two puckered scars that looked a bit like albino raisins. 

I’m pushing fifty years old now, and I’ve got all the normal ailments that come with age—stiff joints, poor hearing, random aches and pains. I got my first colonoscopy last year, and my current doctor has suggested more than once that I lose a few pounds. It’s only going to get worse, of course, but nothing so far has matched the sheer Grand Guignol horror of that first, unexpected surgery when I was twelve. It altered something in me, and since then I’ve never walked into a medical office without a basic assumption that everything could go immediately sideways. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s how I’m wired now. 

My grandpa died in 2004, and I suspect Doc Grundman has long since retired, maybe died as well, but the three of us shared a moment back in 1988, sitting in that beige room. A core memory, as therapists call it these days. People may well be made of stars, but we’re also made of our experiences, and I see one of my basic components every time I glance earthward in the shower. My family likes to joke that I have gross feet, but that’s not fair. My feet aren’t that bad. It’s my toes, man. Those are the stuff of nightmares.

Chris Drew is an Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University, where he teaches courses in creative writing and English teaching methods. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Bellevue Literary ReviewQuarterly WestVita Poetica, Mad River ReviewThe Sycamore Review, and Big Muddy. When he’s not teaching or writing, Chris likes to watch random streaming documentaries with his wife, play music at the local farmers market, let his daughter fill him in on the latest Taylor Swift news, and play Dungeons & Dragons online with his high school pals.