Monday
Sep012014

Mars

Peter Schumacher


 

He picked his feet raw, so that if he went barefoot he left spots of blood behind him. The leavings collected everywhere in his home: bits and strips of dried skin on the bedside table, the work desk, the arms of the red couch. He had to wait for the skin to grow back in order to pick more. It was an ongoing project with no end in sight. He walked with his ankles bent inward because of the pain. It affected his gait: he was something of a waddler. Nothing could get the foot picker to stop. In fact he hardly noticed he was doing it. He ate the skin when he didn't want to make any leavings. Nothing else was strange in the foot picker's life. He was still young. He went to Mass a few times a year. Sometimes he had a girlfriend and sometimes he didn't. He ate Cheerios or Honey Nut Cheerios. One of his favorite places to pick was the library. The library had these comfy lounge chairs he could flop down in with a book, take off his socks and, one foot at a time, pick away. It wasn't something he had to think about. It was like this: he was reading and suddenly here was his foot propped up on his knee, and here was his hand picking his foot. He knew it was an unsightly habit but he assumed the people in the library were minding their own business. He assumed wrongly that no one noticed him (there was a reason he always found his favorite chair unoccupied). In the eyes of the library patrons no one was more disgusting than the foot picker. The worst was when he fell asleep and the book fell onto his chest: this drooling man covered in flecks of his own skin. His feet were very dry. That was why they were so pickable. It was also the allure of it: the foot picker needed to be free of the dead skin. He couldn't wait for his feet to shed naturally. When he used the Internet at home in his boxers eating cereal he picked his feet. He picked his feet ever since he was a child. His childhood was nothing special. He played a lot of videogames when he was a child but he also played outside in the trees and in the creek. In fact he played just about anywhere he could when he was a child. He liked to imagine things. He pretended he was a Ninja Turtle, usually Donatello. When he was an adolescent he worried over Donatello's sexual orientation. It seemed to him that Donatello was the gayest of the turtles. When he emerged from adolescence into adulthood it no longer mattered to him whether Donatello was gay or straight. It wasn't true that his foot picking was a Freudian neurosis with its roots in a cesspool of repressed sexual urges. Nor is this an example of unreliable narration: I am simply stating that it wasn't a neurosis. The foot picking was bad, it was gross, but it wasn't a Freudian neurosis. There were permanent fissures on his heels and on the balls of his feet from picking too much. The fissures tried to heal over but he picked them too frequently and they never did. They remained gaping. At some point he went barefoot and picked up the HPV virus. Common warts emerged from the open fissures. The foot picker tried to treat the warts with salicylic acid but it never seemed to work; it only coated them in a white gluey substance. He applied the stuff every day for six weeks. It stunk up his home with a chemical smell only slightly less astringent than paint thinner. At the end of the treatment cycle he peeled the gluey acid away; the tops of the warts tore away with it. The bases of the warts however were deep in there. They remained firmly anchored. They bled a lot. It hurt but the foot picker thought little of it. He knew it was a real habit but ultimately the bleeding warts were a minor nuisance—certainly not nuisance enough to make him stop picking his feet. Most of his friends had no idea. He had plenty of friends and they needed him more than he needed them. Not that he didn't love his friends—he did. It was just that the foot picker could easily spend a month or more alone. He had to be sure to collect his leavings when he had company. He didn't always get all of them. More than once he was conversing with friends in the living room only to find mid-conversation a small pile of curled-up skin bits on the coffee table. He was fairly sure they never noticed since the color of the table was nearly the same as the color of the skin. He saw a dermatologist and she froze the warts with liquid nitrogen. She gave him a good scolding about the way he cared for his feet. In the eyes of the dermatologist nothing was more disgusting than the foot picker. The foot picker could see it in her eyes. Her eyes were like that of a mother disbelieving reality. The freeze treatment didn't work. The warts went away on their own after three or four years. He picked his feet in Mass when it was summer and he wore sandals and linen pants and it made him feel guilty afterward, not so much because of the foot picking itself but the way it distracted him from the sermon. Sometimes he bent close to his feet as he picked them, as if his feet were a microscope. In the shower he didn't care to scrub his feet; he assumed getting them wet was enough to rinse them clean. Most of his girlfriends tolerated his foot picking more or less. None of them broke up with him over it: it wasn't such a severe habit. In the winter he picked less. The summer was really when he preferred to pick. It wasn't true that he had consciously formed these preferences the way one discovers slowly through a process of trial and error a favorite kind of wine. These preferences were unconsciously formed always. He just found himself picking his feet from time to time, that's all. There were probably others out there like him. People had all kinds of habits. When he lay in bed he could feel his feet throbbing before he fell asleep. He went on a silent meditation retreat and he wasn't able to sleep at all. He couldn't eat or shit. He was meditating twelve hours a day and felt like he was going insane. He tried bringing his sleeping bag out of the hut and sleeping under the stars. It didn't work: the mosquitoes swarmed. He got up and went out on the circular walking path and began to sing and cry. The staff had taken his crucifix at the door. In the morning he broke down during his interview with the instructor. He wept about as hard as a person could: "I can't sleep, I can't sleep." He feared he would be this way forever. The instructor told him to focus on his hands or his feet if he wanted to sleep: "Where energy leaves you." She was Chinese and her English was not fluent. Her trick worked though. He focused on his feet and felt the throbbing energy and fell asleep. He had lucid dreams. He kept telling his friend at dinner, "I'm pretty sure I'm dreaming," and his friend responded each time with indifference. Finally his friend said, "If you're dreaming you better fly." And the foot picker said okay, and he began to float up with his chair, and he was awake at the same time, and paralyzed, and he entered into a field of pure white paralyzed luminosity for about five seconds before he could move and see the real world again, which was dark with greenish shapes slowly coming out of the darkness. He didn't pick his feet much on retreat. He saw a snake molting in the woods squirming out of its skin so slowly it almost looked dead or asleep until the muscles finally just noticeably surged. He saw flowering trees in the spring and his body aged. Fruit flies hovered in due time over the fruit. He was leaving the library when two teenage girls stopped him at the door. One said, "You're the guy who picks his feet." The foot picker almost didn't believe her. From his perspective the foot picking was not central to his identity; in his mind he did not think of himself as the guy who picks his feet. The second teen said, "Why do you do that?" When the foot picker was unable to find an answer the two friends exchanged malicious half-smiles, as if they were having a telepathic conversation about the foot picker's repulsiveness. From their perspective (which was closer to one perspective than two) the foot picker was something of a freak show novelty, barely human. From then on it required some effort to maintain the illusion of anonymity in the library. Actually it was no longer possible. Before long the foot picker stopped spending time at the library altogether. He read fewer books and watched more television at home. He picked his feet watching TV and the leavings collected on the arms of the red couch. His favorite shows were Breaking Bad and Mad Men. These were popular shows. The foot picker was impressed with the quality of writing in these shows. In his opinion the writing quality rivaled that of many novels. Sometimes it felt in his mind like he was reading a novel when in fact he was watching television. Every day innumerable things occurred and almost none of them had anything to do with the foot picker's foot picking. He was still young until he wasn't still young. He was married for twelve years. He had two children who did not turn out to be foot pickers themselves. He remembered clearly the days each of his children was born: the memories did not include any foot picking although he did in fact pick his feet vigorously on both of those days. During his eldest son's birth he picked his feet in the waiting room of the hospital (he was wearing sandals). The second time he took his shoes off and picked his feet in the car while eating a roast beef sandwich. The sensations involved with foot picking didn't seem to change much if at all over the years. At first the dry skin peeled away easily—that was how he was seduced into picking more. Inevitably however he picked a too-thick piece of skin that left a stinging sensation as well as a raw red or pinkish red wound on his foot. He didn't intend to pick his feet raw but it turned out that way every time. Both his children were male. After the divorce his wife resented many things about him but the foot picking wasn't one of them. Mostly she had felt oppressed by him the whole time. He wasn't physically abusive but she did feel that he had been emotionally abusive. In her mind the word tyrant was closely associated with her ex-husband the foot picker. From her perspective nobody was more tyrannical than the foot picker. When the children grew up the mother explained that they had been created out of a sense of desperation; she thought it would save her marriage to the foot picker. From the foot picker's perspective this assertion did not reflect reality. Rather, both children had simply been accidents. He had never wanted to be a father but now that he was he loved his children deeply. He had a tendency to express his love via material gifts. Even when his children were grown he continued to give them many valuable things. Often he simply gave them money. The children felt like they never quite knew who the foot picker was. They noticed his tendency to pick his feet but this did not solve the enigma. The habit wasn't a kind of key for them. The foot picker didn't share his children's problem; he was himself. He was me. He owned a house and a hammock and he liked to lie in the hammock and watch the clouds sail by and pick his feet. When he watched the clouds sail by he felt like he could almost feel the earth moving. For a very brief moment he perceived gravity directly and it made him feel nauseous. His legs were long and flexible and in fact the foot picker was quite tall. He remained in good health more or less. He received fewer visitors, he collected his leavings less frequently. In some elections he voted and in others he didn't. He didn't have strong feelings about politics; he voted for the presidential candidate who seemed to him the most personable and intelligent. If he thought they were both idiots he didn't vote. Obviously he didn't pick his feet while cooking, which he enjoyed. It was basically impossible for him to pick his feet while he stood. He could have done it but it would have been inefficient and therefore dissatisfying. Nothing compared to seated foot picking. Unlike his back or his head or his hands, his feet always felt the same. It always hurt a little bit to walk, his ankles sprained often. He became a regular at an upscale tapas joint downtown. He sat at the bar and ordered mango-habeñero sorbet. He sat at the bar before or after the rush and busied himself on his tablet. He did not pick his feet in the restaurant. The wait staff didn't know the foot picker as the foot picker. It wasn't true that he leered lasciviously at the beautiful waitresses. From their perspective he was not a creepy old man but a capable conversationalist. In fact he was hardly old yet, his life transpired so slowly. He was in good health and he was happy. In addition to the sorbet his usuals included the shrimp ceviché and the pork schnitzel with cognac cream sauce. If he felt like salad he ordered the fatoush with sumac-yogurt vinaigrette. On occasion he just had a glass of Cotês du Rhône and ordered his food to go and ate it at home and picked his feet, although it wasn't true that he ordered his tapas to go out of a need to pick his feet. He ordered them to go for other reasons, for example a desire to be alone. He did however inevitably end up picking his feet as he watched television and ate his tapas from the little brown boxes. The news on the television was eventually all about Mars. His children were grown and they were excited when they visited. They kept using the word epoch. From their perspective the future was as gaping as the past was from the foot picker's perspective. Everything was a sensation and he'd had so many of them. He went to Spain. He ate tapas and picked his feet in the sun. He resolved to read Don Quixote before he died but he never did read it. This was a rare and perhaps important aspect of his life, for otherwise the foot picker did not make many resolutions and therefore had few regrets when he died. But he didn't die for a long time. Barcelona was full of beautiful women. In Madrid he ate a mountain-cured ham he almost couldn't believe. The warts came back in Valencia. He was on the beach picking his feet and wiping the leavings off the towel into the sand when he saw it: a cauliflower formation on the side of his big toe. Under his foot there were three more. His other foot had zero warts. He wondered if wart treatment had changed, it seemed plausible. He went to a Spanish urgent care clinic because the idea of healthcare in a foreign country excited him. He couldn't tell if he was welcome or not but they treated him in any case. A nurse froze the wart with liquid nitrogen, which shot out of the canister at a higher pressure than the foot picker expected. He felt the familiar sting and he saw the familiar cloud of gas dissipating around the frozen warts. The warts whitened and looked like they could shatter but they didn't. Their color returned. He went home. He tried to pick them off but they stuck around. Both his children married. They seemed to manage it better than the foot picker had. They had children of their own, so that the foot picker became a grandfather of a female child and two male children. He watched them sometimes. He picked his feet while they napped. He loved them like any grandfather would. He wondered about their future. Mostly he marveled at their future although he did worry over it too. From his perspective there was nothing more pure and innocent in the world than his three perfect grandchildren, nothing more uncertain than their future. He retired. He'd had a job all this time in fact. He never picked his feet at work and in fact not once in all those years did anything worth mentioning ever happen at work. At Christmas the kids talked Mars and they were very excited. The foot picker couldn't believe what they were saying: "Please come with us to Mars, Dad: the beginning of a new epoch." From the foot picker's perspective everyone was dreaming. An explosion or a war would prevent this. But his children said it was already happening. They said they could use their connections to get him approved for passage even though he was outside the usual age window. "We've worked it all out," they told him. "The children are coming, Mom's coming, and we want you to come too." The foot picker cringed at the word Mom. It occurred to him that this was a childish ploy to get him back together with her. The idea made him angry. He told his children he wouldn't go. On his left foot there was a new mole in addition to the warts. It was a raised mole but it did not look like a tumor in the foot picker's opinion. He picked lazily at it, half-trying to get rid of it. In the grocery store he could no longer buy bananas or avocados. The cereal selection was reduced by half, the lights were the same as ever. Total strangers sympathized with each other's misfortune in the lotteries. They said food in space was practically free. The foot picker had what was probably his biggest pile of leavings ever on the bedside table. It had been a long time since he did anything about it. He was happy more or less, not like those stressed-out mothers at Safeway. Perhaps it was finally true that his ex-wife could no longer fuck with him. Perhaps her bullshit could no longer reach his mind. He'd experience a little discomfort, anger, hatred in her presence . . . but the paranoia and the fear—the mind games—he felt immune to them now. He was at a point in his life where he could take it. And this was after all an adventure at his door, and the foot picker's life had after all lacked adventures; foot picking didn't count as one. In fact it was the opposite of adventure. Foot picking was pure predictability whereas adventure was unknowable. Mars was unknowable unless he consented to live on a spaceship with his ex. Which he did, finally, when he'd thought it through. He did consent and his children were thrilled and he packed his bags and met his family at the launch site in Texas. He and his ex-wife communicated many things with their eyes as their children rejoiced. He brought Don Quixote with him into space. He picked his feet in space although the leavings did not drift in zero gravity as one might imagine. The ship produced its own gravity. It felt similar to being anywhere else. He ate breakfast with his family and after that he spent the rest of the day alone. He wandered the nature preserve and breathed the oxygen and found a nice spot to lie down with his blanket and watch the artificial clouds and pick his feet. He read the first page of Don Quixote numerous times. He found it difficult to understand the language even in translation. His grandchildren played in a soccer league. They were capable soccer players; one of them was even great. Their names were Joey and Jake and Joanne, the great one. All this time they'd had those names. "And so much time still to carry those names around," the foot picker found himself saying. In space he found he talked to himself often. Before he slept he went to the observation deck where he felt ancient. The other stargazers were young couples huddled close, their children already dreaming in their space bunks. The young lovers seemed to be getting along well with each other. "They're weird," the foot picker heard himself say. It wasn't true that the stars looked like they were rushing toward the observation deck. It looked like any starry night up there and the foot picker received an unfamiliar joy when he watched his sons embrace their wives in space with Mars growing bigger behind them in the window every night, as if the red star he'd known all his life was slowly expanding and finally becoming a real planet, a location. Soon it would be the realest thing there was: as if Mars were coming to the foot picker and not the other way around. "Fucking Mars," his wife said, surprising him on his left with a glass of wine held close to her chest. He tried to ignore her. She said she had a dream in which she was running through the city with a gunshot wound in her belly. Also she had a crying baby in her arms who wasn't Joey or Jake or Joanne. She was looking for help but she found the city empty and she went on and on about this dream of hers and the foot picker didn't care at all. It was impossible for her to get into his mind now. And yet here she was here and that was an annoyance in itself. She wore a grey shawl around her shoulders just like she did on Earth. The foot picker didn't want to look at her so he looked into space instead: his huge red new home, the place where he would die.