Joe’s Toes

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Looking back over my first five blogs, I realize that I must sound like the saddest sack. I’m not really. Well, not all the time. It’s just that the times I find suitable for writing are the times when it is quiet in the house. And quiet in the house reminds me of how alone I can be so, ipso facto…. depression writing! Tonight I shall try to break the pattern and write of a livelier time. I like to call this story “Joe’s Toes.”

My husband was a complicated man. Now, for my feminist friends, those two words, “complicated” and “man” might sound contradictory but sisters, really, they do exist and I know as I shared my life with the most complex man for a over a quarter of a century. Before meeting me (I swear it was WELL before meeting me), he was a Roman Catholic priest. Originally trained as a Franciscan, he moved into diocesan garb after meeting a group of priests who he felt were more in line with his thinking. And by that I mean, liberal, long-haired, Scotch drinking, boys who were running amuck while carrying on their churchly duties. The stories from his time in clergy were hysterical (and no I cannot share them. Trust me – priests are human and their antics are just as human as ours). I didn’t hear most of the stories until we were married for some time. In fact, he didn’t admit to his former occupation until we were dating for some time. We had met at work and I had heard the rumors about him but rather than run away from the alleged former priest, I ran toward him.

Oh, did I mention my older brother is a priest and my first cousin is a bishop? My family is stinking with clergy. Missionaries, Priests, Franciscans, Bishops,  …. Yup, gotta love the Irish. I suspect my failure to be intimidated, or even impressed, with his credentials piqued his interest a tad, too.

The Readers’ Digest version of our courtship went something like this: I met him while working for a government social service agency. A friend of mine, Lee,  pointed him out to me. Lee indicated that “he is the nicest guy” to which I responded in my best Irish whisper “But Lee, he has no ass.”

Yes, sad fact. The man was ass-less. He could barely hold up his trousers. Never saw anything like it before. He was 6’3 1/2″ tall, and the gangliest fellow. He had brown eyes, brown hair, and an overbite that begged the question “Where was the orthodontist when you needed him?” Sounds fetching, doesn’t he? But he was. There was something so kind and generous in those brown eyes that you knew you were safe in his presence. And his size helped. One time in our early dating days, we were out having cocktails and some jerk at a bar made a pass at me. Joe pulled himself up to his full height and I thought the jerk was going to have a “Depends’ moment.” Joe was a quiet man — but watch out when he got mad. And you didn’t need to guess when he was mad. Those kind, generous eyes could also blaze right through you. Needless to say, afore-mentioned jerk made a hasty exit. The entire incident resulted in me being further enthralled with this fellow who, until that moment, didn’t look like he would hurt a fly. He wouldn’t hurt a fly — unless the fly threatened to hurt someone he loved.

Our dating was awkward at first. You see, when he started work at the state, he was still living in the rectory. And because I had just moved back to the area from out of state, I was living with my mom and dad. So, when your options are limited for um, well, let’s call them “private moments,” you turn to seedy hotels (check) or the rectory (check-check). Yes, mea culpa. For those of the faith, I would have admitted this in confession but I figured I was already in God’s house so he knew what I was up to so why did I have to tell ANOTHER priest? See my logic? I’m hoping it passes muster with the big guy upstairs as I’m not even certain I buy that bunch of malarkey. But it’s worth a shot.

Well, we had one more option …. Joe owned a camp way up in the Adirondacks. And by “way up” I mean it. The camp is just about on the Canadian border. It is on the edge of the Adirondack State Park. Specifically, go to a place called “Nowhere” and take a left. That’s where the camp is.

Well, the beauty of the camp was that it was so isolated that there were no prying eyes, no photos of the Pontiff (or Bobby Kennedy), and no other reminders of past history. Just the two of us, a hunting camp, an outhouse (yes, an outhouse) and a fully stocked liquor cabinet.

The nights in the Adirondacks are spectacular. So are the days but the nights well, you have never seen such darkness. I was brought up in the country and I thought I knew from dark. No sir — dark at my house included a street light. There were no street lights up at camp. No light anywhere but from inside the camp, the stars above, and the roaring fires that he loved to build. We would sit besides those fires for hours, telling stories and, on our first night, counting toes.

Now maybe it’s just me but have you ever had so much to drink your ability to pull together rudimentary facts, like counting to ten, is called into question? This first night at the camp, we were sitting near the fire. Joe had cooked dinner and now we were just sitting around, having cocktails and telling stories. It had been a warm day so we were both in summer attire and Joe had taken his socks and shoes off. Now, as you may have guessed, this was not the first time the man had taken his socks and shoes off when I was around (ahem), but it was the first time I found myself looking at his feet. While Joe continued on telling some certainly hilarious story, I found myself counting. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9… wait, start over…. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9… No matter how hard I tried, or from which angle I counted, I continued to come up with 9, not the expected 10. You know, the little piggy that went “wee, wee, wee, all the way home?” Well, that little piggy was missing.

I wasn’t quite certain what might have happened but decided that discretion, being the better part of valor, it was best I kept my observation to myself. However, did I mention my Irish heritage? Yeah, well there’s that. You see, in the words of my dear departed Da, I am about as subtle as a pig on ice. Another one of dear old dad’s great expressions. Regardless, quite suitable for this narrative was my inability to pay attention to Joe’s story, combined with what was certainly my mouth moving as I counted over and over, making it abundantly clear to my future husband that I had noticed he was missing a digit.

I finally noticed he had stopped talking and was waiting for the question. Trying to gather what little tact was left in my alcohol-fueled brain, I asked “What the hell happened to your toe?” He became quite quiet. He looked sadly down and muttered “Punji stick.” “Oh,” I said, shutting up immediately. In college I had dated a Vietnam vet and I knew all too well that a Punji stick was a type of booby trap used by the Viet Cong.  I felt horrible. Absolutely horrible. Actually started crying about what a travesty the war had been. I got up on my (drunken) liberal soap box and decried the horrors of war ….I do believe I went on and on for quite some time while Joe sat quietly by, sipping his Scotch and listening to the raving lunatic around the fire.

Here’s the thing, Joe was never in Vietnam. He lost his toe in a farming accident while he was in seminary. The real story was gruesome enough (yet nothing as exotic as a field injury in Vietnam) but for some odd reason that night he felt compelled to tell me the Punji stick version to see if I would fall for it (or to see how really intoxicated I was). I fell for it AND I was really intoxicated. I think all that Franciscan training made him quick on his feet (get it?…. feet, toes…. oy veh).

Like I said, he was a complicated guy; albeit  with nine toes — none of which were lost to a Punji stick. I fell for a lot of those stories over the next 25 years. He amused himself, and me,  with my gullibility. And you know what? When I look back at our time together, I think of how much we laughed. Good, hearty, long laughs … that still fill me with joy at the memory. Quite frankly, I’m smiling now. Punji stick. What a putz! But he was my putz.

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