The Foot (another story about Frederick from “Daisies”)

 Denny comes over for lunch on his day off. Our conversations have been strained lately, but I look forward to seeing my kid. Today he brings burgers on rosemary onion buns he bakes himself. I’m proud to have a kid who works with his hands, a kid who everyone says is the best short-order cook in town. Denny says it’s all in knowing how to season foods simply but well.

 “Are you and Mom still thinking about a move?” he asks after we’ve sat down to eat.

 “We’ve never thought about a move,” I say. Denny and I have had this conversation twenty times. I wish he’d realize it won’t go anywhere.

 “I saw ads for apartments in the paper today,” he says. “You should move to town.” My farm is only four miles out in the country, but Denny makes it seem like four hundred.

 “Things are quiet here and I like it that way,” I say.

 “But if something were to happen,” says Denny, “you should be closer to medical care.”

 “I appreciate you worrying,” I lie, “but when it’s time to stop farming, I’ll know.”

 “Grandpa didn’t know,” says Denny.

 I take a large bite of burger. My dad died of a heart attack in the seat of his tractor. He was seventy-eight years old. The engine stopped when his foot slid off the pedal. I found him in the middle of a blank field. It was how he wanted to go. I don’t think it’s a bad idea.

 “Your grandfather was a healthy man when he woke up on his last day,” I say, “and he remained a healthy man until five seconds before he passed away.”

 “That’s just it,” says Denny. “He thought he was healthy but he wasn’t. If he’d been in town, someone would have seen him. They’d have gotten him to the hospital and he could have survived a few more years.”

 I don’t agree. The doctors said my dad was gone in a matter of seconds.

 “Let me check around for apartments,” says Denny. “There are a few places you and Mom might like.”

 “I don’t think I can stop you,” I mutter. Denny doesn’t understand what it means to want to keep working while you still have energy.

 My son hugs me when he leaves. I thank him for lunch, say I’ll see him next week.

 “You take care,” he says. Denny peers at me for a moment. I’m not sure what he sees. Maybe he just didn’t think I’d get old.

 Outside the April air is moist and heavy. I walk to the edge of my cornfield, carry a large flowerpot to collect some soil. My wife Hedda wants to have a pot of herbs on the back porch so we don’t have to tromp to the garden every time we need basil or dill.

 I don’t want to stop farming even though I’m seventy, eight years younger than my dad when he died. I might have less than a decade left on Earth, but if I’m going to die it might as well be on a tractor. I get more tired than I used to, but I feel best when I’m in the field. It’s why I get up at five-thirty every morning, make coffee and toast, and feel important. If I didn’t have that, what would be left? Over the past week I’ve been doing the usual spring rituals to get ready for planting. Testing the pH and nitrogen levels in the soil. Inspecting the planter and cleaning the seed drop tubes. Denny thinks I should be happy with a backyard vegetable garden. When he was in high school I told him it was okay that he didn’t want to be a farmer. This is and isn’t true. Of course I was sad for that break in tradition, but I don’t need him to farm. I need him to understand me.

 I fill the pot with dirt halfway before I hit something hard. I bend down and pick up a long object. Weird rock. I brush off the dirt and realize I’m holding a prune-wrinkled foot.

 I stare at it for a moment, poke in the dirt to see if I can find any other body parts, but none seem to be there. With the foot in one hand and the pot in the other, I walk back to the house. I wash the foot under the garden hose and dry it with paper towels in the kitchen. It’s very dark, very wrinkled, and on the small side. I bet it’s old. Maybe it was the same size as my foot at one time.

 I sit at the kitchen table with a mug of cold coffee and the foot. I wonder if it belonged to someone who farmed the land before my great-grandfather. He must have been one of those men who braved the endless forest and felled trees to build a cabin for his family and clear a field for his corn. A man who sacrificed his foot in the process. The cut is clean, like it was made with a blade. How old he was when he lost the foot? Did he die then, or years after?

 It’s two in the afternoon. Hedda won’t be home until six. She’s the head of the county historical society, and for half a minute I wonder what reaction she’ll have to my discovery.

 But wait. Shit. If she sees the foot she’ll want to put it under glass. The farmer who owned this foot would not appreciate that. He must have been a modest and practical man, not one who believed in display. I wrap the foot in an old kitchen towel and slide it in the drawer where I keep a few tools for household repairs–hammers and wrenches and screwdrivers. It’s a drawer my wife doesn’t open.

 I walk out to the barn so I can finish cleaning the seed drop tubes in my planter, but while I work I consider the foot’s owner. I’m sure he persevered after losing his foot. Maybe his descendants are still around town. Maybe I know them. Of course the owner of the foot would be pleased to know that my grandfather and father and I have all worked his land. He would be pleased to know his toil is appreciated.

 After a couple of hours of pondering the foot and the farmer it belonged to, I start to construct his story. He must have lost the foot during harvest time while he was using a scythe, cutting grass to feed his oxen. He was tired from those long hours, let himself dream of his cabin and the pleasantly crackling fire. Out of weariness or zealousness he swung the blade too hard. It slipped past the wheat stalks and cut off his foot. He was so tired he did not feel pain at first, could only stare at his ankle stump and think this was unexpected. The farmer gathered his wits in a moment, took off his neckerchief and used it as a tourniquet around his knee while he hollered for his wife. She gave him whiskey to dull the pain before she lifted him on his horse and led it to town for a doctor. His wife and children managed to harvest all their corn with the help of a few neighbors. They survived the harsh winter, but just barely. The one-footed farmer returned to his land the following spring to plant his next crop, but he never found his foot. It was lost in that swampy bog, which turned out to be a good place for preserving things.

 I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand.

Two weeks later, after I’ve finished planting the last acre of corn, I sit with the farmer’s foot in the kitchen. I’ve been doing this every morning since I found the foot, thinking about how my life is so much different, so much easier, than his must have been. It’s a humbling experience. He had to do everything by hand—plow and sow and hoe and harvest. He probably used oxen to till the fields. It’s been a long time since I even had a milk cow. We don’t depend on animals anymore, just engines. How would he feel about that? You can’t have a deep connection to a combine the way you can with a horse or ox, and—

 “What the hell is that?” says Denny. He’s come over for lunch. I forgot.

 “I think it’s a foot,” I say. Dammit. I should have been listening for his car.

 “My god, when did you find it?” says Denny. “We have to tell Mom. She’ll go bonkers. This makes the farm a historical site or something.”

 “I dug it up a few minutes ago,” I say, “out in the cornfield. I washed it off and dried it real good. That was all I had time for.”

 Denny phones the police and the Historical Society while I sit in a corner of the kitchen and quietly apologize to the foot’s owner.

 “Dammit,” I mutter. “I’m sorry. Dammit.”

 Within an hour the police and the county sheriff and my wife and a four-person crew from the Historical Society converge on the farm.

 “Isn’t this exciting?” says my wife. She grabs my elbow as two Society archeologists announce they’re going to dig up my cornfield.

 I gape. Once I’ve regained my voice, I protest as much as I can. I’ve just finished planting. That cause doesn’t get much sympathy, however, least of all from my wife.

 “It’s important to excavate,” she says. “What if there’s some wonderful find waiting underneath our field?”

 “But the corn…” I say. I peer at the neat rows, imagine seedlings shooting like straight green fingers through the soil. “Can’t they just wait a few months?”

 “We’re sitting on an archaeological site,” she says.

 The police and the sheriff pronounce the foot “too damn old” to be worth a murder investigation.

 My wife says they’ll have to take a little sample of the foot and send it to a lab in Cleveland to figure out how old it is. I already know how old the foot is and that it belonged to a farmer, but if I say this no one will believe me. They just want to attack my corn.

 “You all have to leave,” I say. “Now. No digging.”

 “Honey,” says Hedda, “this is important.”

 “It’s my property and my foot,” I say, “and I want everyone off.”

 “It’s our property,” says Hedda, setting her face into a grimace. “No one is leaving. We have to find out if there’s anything else under the field. Who knows what could be there.”

 “My corn,” I say.

 “We’ll reimburse you,” she says. “If you’d think for a moment, you’d see I’m right.”

  “I’ve been thinking,” I say.

 “You just found it the foot,” she says. “You’re emotional. You have to consider this a little more.”

 Hedda says I get too worked up about a lot of things. I say she’s cold. But the land belongs to both of us since we’ve been funding the farm together for four decades. I can’t make everyone leave the property if Hedda wants them to stay.

 I set my jaw and negotiate best I can, tell the Historical Society archaeologists I found the foot at the edge of the field and let them mark off a twenty-by-twenty foot section with yellow caution tape. The archaeologists cheerfully rip through my soil in the hopes of finding more wrinkled body parts. My white-gloved wife wraps the foot in a clean cloth and takes it to the Historical Society. I grit my teeth and watch her drive away.

 Late at night while my wife is sleeping, I walk to the edge of the field, fifty feet from where I told the archaeologists to dig. The place where I found the foot. I poke a stick in the dirt, searching for more body parts so I can save them from display.

 I can’t watch the archaeologists conduct their investigation. They break the land into four hundred little cubes so they can plot what they find and where. Over two weeks they only uncover a few arrowheads, but that doesn’t stop them. When Denny and I have lunch, all he can talk about is how the farm is a great archeological site.

 “You and mom should move to town,” he says, “especially since the archaeologists want to dig more.”

 “I let the archeologists have their space and they’re not taking any more,” I say.

 “You can’t stop the quest for knowledge,” says Denny, “and you can’t stop Mom.”

 After lunch we drive into town. Denny wants to show me the new grill and convection oven at the café where he works, he says they’re top of the line, but afterwards he takes me to look at apartments.

 “I’m not getting out,” I say, crossing my arms as we sit in the parking lot.

 “Dad,” he says, “don’t be like this.”

 “You tricked me,” I say.

 “I think we should walk through a couple apartments,” he says. “If you don’t like them, I’ll stop bugging you.”

 I don’t believe him, but I get out of the car. My son is a person who keeps his word. Besides, he has his mother’s determination. We could be sitting in the parking lot until one in the morning if I don’t consent to look at the apartment. The landlord shows us the tiny kitchen, living room, bedroom, and a bathroom so small there’s barely space to turn around.

 “It’s cramped,” I say, but all the landlord can talk about is how our farm is a historical landmark, and she understands why we want to move so the research can continue.

 I want to throw up.

 After dragging me to two more apartments, Denny buys us coffee and donuts at the café.

 “You were mean to the landlords.” He grimaces.

 “I wasn’t mean,” I say, “I was just quiet.”

 “It sounded mean,” he says.

 “I don’t want to move,” I say.

 “You’re a pigheaded old man,” he says.

 “That sounds about right,” I say, sipping my coffee. He doesn’t understand how finding the foot, finding the farmer, has bound me to the land even more.


The next day I drive to the Historical Society to visit the foot. The Society is half a mile from town, housed in a large brick building that used to be the county hospital and insane asylum. My wife’s office is the same one the head of the asylum used. I sit on the bench beside the locked glass cabinet where the foot is trapped and apologize to it several times. I was selfish to take it out of the dirt. It would have rather settled back in that soil.

 I imagine the farmer sitting beside me, a gaunt man dressed in a dark cotton shirt and pants and a straw hat. He knits his thin fingers together and glares alternately at me and down at the floor to his empty ankle.

 “I was weak when I let them take it away,” I tell him. The farmer harrumphs and crosses his arms. He doesn’t care about my apologies. My dad would have had the sense to return the foot to the earth, some safe spot where it could rest undisturbed.

 Every few months I see an article in the newspaper about some Native American people trying to get ancestral remains back. They get tied up in long court battles, but all they really want is to have the proper burial ceremonies and put the souls to rest. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t know those people directly, they’re still people, they’re still ancestors.

 Those news article make Hedda harrumph. I keep quiet, don’t make a stink, but now I understand a little of how those people must feel.

 I wander guiltily around the Historical Society and peer at old farm implements. I’ve seen these tools dozens of times, but now consider that the farmer might have used those plows and rakes and shovels. Back then farming meant something. It was about survival. It was about keeping your family alive. I sold corn to earn the money that bought my kid white bread and bologna. Not exactly the same thing. The farmer knew what it meant to be committed to the land, to want to stay on a certain piece of it. Not many people understand that anymore. My kid doesn’t. His generation is too temporary, will live in any old spot. I feel like I’m going extinct.

I make toast for breakfast. Hedda and I eat it with the cherry peach preserves that Denny made last summer. I try to reason with her.

 “Wouldn’t it be disturbing to have your foot on display a hundred years from now?” I say to my dear wife.

 “I’ll be dead and won’t care much,” she says. “I might as well be on display instead of six feet underground.”

 There is no reasoning with Hedda when it comes to artifacts. She believes old things are meant for educational purposes. I don’t know what people are going to learn from that farmer’s old foot. My wife’s mother was the same way, too matter-of-fact. Her father was like me, a sentimental guy. He cried when Denny graduated from high school. He cried when Denny graduated from the two-year culinary program. Crying men are unusual here. My wife’s mother grumped that something was not right with her husband just as Hedda grumps that something is not right with me, but I appreciated my father-in-law’s tears.

 The foot would make him emotional. The foot would make my dad emotional. The foot would make my grandfather emotional. All of us could sit around the kitchen table with cups of coffee, thinking about the foot and wiping our eyes.

 My son is harder in temperament, like his mother and grandmother, but he blots his eyes on his sleeve when he comes over for lunch and we eat really good fresh bread.

 “It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.

 I’m glad I raised a kid who can understand a great experience, even if he can’t understand why the foot shouldn’t be in the Historical Society. The carbon dating test results came back from Cleveland yesterday. It’s like I thought, the foot is about one hundred seventy years old.

 Denny says that testing proves it’s important to rip up even more of my field. Then he says he’s chosen an apartment in town for Hedda and me.

 “The paperwork and lease are ready,” he says. “All you have to do is sign. It’s a very good deal. The landlord even knocked fifty dollars off the original rent because I explained you were having a hard time leaving the farm.”

 For a long moment I can’t speak, too surprised at my kid’s gall.

 “I hated all those apartments,” I say. “I’m not going.”

 “It’s fine with Mom,” he says. “I checked with her at work before I came over.”

 “I’m your father,” I say. “Not your child. You can’t shuffle me around.”

 “But you’re getting old,” he says. Denny crosses his arms like he’d drag me out of the house if it came to that. “I hoped you’d be reasonable.”

 “Going behind my back isn’t reasonable,” I say.

 “You saw the apartments,” he says. “They were nice.”

 “They were too damn small,” I say.

 Denny huffs out of the kitchen and doesn’t finish his sandwich. I eat mine because I hate wasting food, and my son is a good cook, even if he can be a jerk. When I gripe to my wife over the phone about Denny’s intrusion, she’s too calm. My wife is always too calm.

 “We should think about it,” she says. “We are getting older, and Denny wants what’s best for us. It’s normal for grown children to be concerned.”

 “But he’s trying to kick me off the farm,” I say.

 She tells me not to be so harsh. “We’ll talk about it in a few days, when you’re more rational.”

 But I’m mad as hell and that’s not going to change. The farmer would understand how I feel. During his time, people didn’t stop working until they couldn’t work anymore. That’s what I want. Retirement isn’t appealing. If I moved to town I would feel useless and bored. On my farm I have a reason to keep going. That’s an ethic my farmer would appreciate. An ethic my dad and grandfather would appreciate. When I join them, this is how we will measure our lives. By our commitment to work.


Two days later I take lunch to my wife, tuna salad sandwiches on Denny’s homemade bread. Before we eat she goes to the ladies room to freshen up. I scoot around her desk and open the top drawer, look for her keys. Each has a little label indicting the lock it fits—front door, back door, lecture rooms, master cabinet. I take the last off the ring and slip it in my pocket.

 When Hedda mentions Denny and the apartment, I change the subject to her afternoon lecture on Civil War quilts. It’s never hard to distract her, especially when the distraction involves old stuff.

 After we eat I drive to the city forty-five minutes away to get a duplicate key made. My wife doesn’t need to open display cases much. She also has a habit of losing things when they’re in front of her face. Too often she hunts all over the house for her glasses, only to realize she’s wearing them. I hope if she misses the key, she’ll figure it was her own oversight.

 It only takes a few minutes to grind a copy of the key, then I’m back in my pickup heading to the historical society. My wife is giving her lecture. I leave the key in her desk drawer. There are many reasons I love my wife, but she doesn’t understand the foot is not a quilt. It’s part of a person.

 I wait a week to execute my plan, decide to act on a night when the Society is sponsoring a tea and talk about Victorian dresses. Everyone is in the main meeting room, so it’s easy to slip through the dark halls to the cabinet with the foot. I wear leather work gloves, can’t get a good hold of the key and almost drop it, but after a few false tries it slides in.

 I grab the foot and replace it with a gnarled piece of wood from my backyard. Part of a tree root, dark and lumpy kind of like the foot. I wrap the foot in an old t-shirt and leave through the side door. Back in the truck, I realize my hands are shaking. But I have the foot. I place it on the passenger seat and drive home slowly. Triumphantly. The foot can enjoy it’s regained solitude. I know that farmer is happy I’m a man who understands him, a man who tries to make things right after he screws up. The foot and I enjoy a celebratory beer in the kitchen. We toast my father and grandfather and the rest of those hard-headed men who refuse to leave their piece of earth, even when they pass on.

 I get a second beer from the fridge and proclaim to no one that I want to die on the seat of a tractor. It feels very glorious, but I go to bed early so I don’t have to make smalltalk with my wife when she arrives.

 Hedda doesn’t say anything at breakfast but she drives home at noon. She is not happy.

 “The foot,” she says, “it’s gone. You’re the only one who would take it.”

 My wife is a smart woman, so I’m not surprised she came to this conclusion so early. I think about lying. But I’m bad at lying.

 “It wasn’t yours to begin with,” I say. “It was on my land.”

 “Our land,” she says.

 “My land,” I say though I am not usually possessive. “The land where I found the foot was passed down from my grandfather and my father. If you want to call the police, go ahead. They can arrest me and throw me in jail for taking my own property.”

 “Just tell me where the foot is,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be on display all the time.”

 “It isn’t going to be on display,” I say.

 Instead of calling the police, she calls Denny. He’s at our house in ten minutes.

 “Dad,” he yells, “why the hell did you steal the foot?”

 “I didn’t steal the foot,” I say. “It wasn’t the Historical Society’s foot. It belonged to a man who farmed the land before me. The farmer who used to live here.”

 “The people at the lab in Cleveland said it was a woman’s foot,” says my wife.

 I can’t speak for a moment. I didn’t know those tests could point to gender. I have to pause and recover. Rethink. A woman’s foot. She was probably married to that farmer. It’s not too difficult to picture her standing in our kitchen, a steel-eyed lady who plowed fields and baked bread over an open fire and raised kids. She would have been like my mother, modest and hard-working and terribly embarrassed by the thought of her foot in some showcase being stared at by schoolchildren.

 My mother could understand that woman, but my wife and son can’t.

 “We’ll turn the house upside down,” says Hedda. “We’ll dig more holes in the field.”

 “Go ahead,” I say, “you won’t find the foot.” Though they might very well find it because it’s wrapped in an old shirt in the butter churn we keep in the basement. “Call the police. They’ll shine a bright light in my eyes and charge me with theft and haul me to jail.”

 My dad said there were some causes important enough for a person to do drastic things. Our land and our pride were two of those causes. The police can shut me in a mental ward and make me a headline in the weekly paper – “Local Farmer Finds Foot, Loses Marbles.” And maybe I have, but I don’t care.

 My wife picks up the phone receiver, glances at me, and starts dialing. She holds the receiver to her ear.

 “Hello?” she says.

 I don’t know who she’s talking to. It could be the police. It could be the number to get the time and temperature. She tells the story of how I found the foot on our land. How she wants it for the historical society’s educational programming. How I stole the foot back without her permission. She says “I see,” about twelve times. Then she hangs up.

 “Well,” she says.

 If she called the police, they must have told her that there’s not much they can do. We have to figure things out on our own. Not that it’ll be an easy task.

 “This is for the public good,” says my wife. “Public education.”

 “What about the good of the woman who owned the foot?” I say.

 “She’s dead,” says my wife.

 “Why should that matter?” I say. “Is this what she would want?”

 “She’s dead,” my wife says again.

 “I don’t care,” I say, “You’re not taking her foot.”

 There is a crack in the air between us. My wife and son on one side. Me and the farmer’s wife and the farmer and my father and grandfather on the other. Hedda and I have been married for forty-five years. A damn long time. But not as long as I’ve lived on this little piece of land. I feel my dad and my grandfather nodding. They understand the weight of belonging somewhere. I firm my hands on the kitchen table and stand in place.