Musing on Life: My Left Thumbnail

My left thumb nail. From early moments of childhood, I decided to let that nail grow. To see how long I could get it. To use it as a tool, my handy pocket nail ready clean the gunk under my other nails, cram it under the screw to pry it free.  I polished, nurtured and in turn, abused it. While I never named it, it was a separate articulate entity, challenging the world from its tenuous extremity. 

Early in our relationship, I became quickly aware of how soft and thin the nail was. I wanted the nail to grow to become long, hard, and proud, as well as to be used for any spontaneous purpose.

The delicate nature of my nail became clear during frequent visits to my grandparents. In the evening, we would all gather in the living room, Mom on the love seat, Grammy in her old green recliner chair with the frayed arm rests that I spent years slowly pulling apart, and grandpa resting in his old green leather chair with the wooden arms, his old calloused feet resting on a green vinyl foot stand, eye level with me in my spot on the floor in the middle of the living room. The soft snore of his alcohol snooze. The unlit cigarette bobbing with each breath. The old worn tee shirts with holes in them. The few long grey strands of hair on his head, which with ample length, were used to cover so much of his head.  All these features led to many games of childhood play. The earliest game and one of my earliest memories was “take the hat off grandpa’s head and run off with it.” The footfalls of his pursuit causing me to squeal in terror and delight. A later game was to unravel his cigarettes from his tee shirt sleeve and see how many I could get in his mouth before he would rouse and then try and catch me.

The third game involved pulling slipping twisting and generally molesting his snoozing feet. I was fascinated by how hard and thick his nails were. His big toe had huge thick nail that must go untrimmed for years to reach such a stately length. And what thickness it must be–five times as thick as my own nails. It became my own personal life mission to trim each toe quickly, silently without rousing the sleeping bear. I couldn’t just grab nail clippers and go to work. Early in the evening, my foot grooming would elicit a negative response from mom and grandmom. But later, around 9 or 10, droopy eyes or dishes or women talk in the kitchen would allow me private time with archaic nails. First, I would rummage to find nail clippers and then when attention was diverted, I would begin my grooming. Slowly, stealthfully, the clipper would encircle the unsuspecting toe nail then quickly, I would squeeze. The clipper would dig in my right hand, pressing, waiting for that satisfying snapping sound of metal on metal and the flick of nail shooting randomly through the living room night. Pressing with all my might, it was a two-handed job. Rushing, hoping the foot wouldn’t twitch while the nail was held in place with both young hands. Pressing, desperately, the snap, then came loud and crisp and clear sound like a ruler being snapped on a school desk. The clip arousing grandpa and causing him to grumble and shift his position. I never finished grooming each toe but I did what I could with what I had.

In the climatic moment with both hands pressing desperately on the clipper, a question popped into my head. Would my nails be this long and thick and tough? These were nails that never were bent backward while performing their task. Why were his nails so strong and mine so soft? Especially my left thumb nail longed to be as strong and long as my grandfather’s toe nails.

I was at the Murdaugh’s. I don’t remember if I was being babysat or if it was a voluntary visit. A boyfriend arrived, probably one of Tracy’s. They pulled into the old stone parking lot and we gathered around the old vehicle to talk and hang out. I don’t remember what caused me to want to climb in, but the car was big and alluring. I pulled on the passenger side handle and the large door opened easily. The car was on the hill and I was unable to close the door. To brace myself I put my left hand on the dashboard to increase my leverage. Now, I slammed the huge metal door closed. To my surprise, my thumb was caught in the door jam. Instinctively, I pulled my trapped thumb back toward my body.  The thumb was stuck. I knew that I must open the door to release it. In long painful moments, I was unable to open the door as my body convulsed in panic. Finally, I reached the door handle and opened the door. Would my thumb be flat, the bone shattered? How much space would there be between the car and the door? Just how mangled would my thumb be? If pain was any indicator, then my thumb would look flat, like a cartoon finger caught in a fallen window.

The thumb wasn’t flat and the bones didn’t appear smashed, but the thumb was bloody and the nail was badly smashed. Judy Murdaugh forced me to run the bloody stump under hot water. The pain subsided later and a big white bandage was built for the thumb.

Looking at the thumb, I could tell I would lose the whole nail but the bottom left part was still alive. For at least two weeks, 80% of the nail was disconnected, waiting to catch on sweaters, couch, grass, schools. Every day or two, the nail would catch on something. The pain was exquisite; tears would rush to my eyes. Each time would decrease the amount of living connection to the nail. Hundreds of times I would stare at the nail and think one hard yank would free me from daily pain and frustration of catching it. But the pain was so acute on each catch that I was unable to get the courage to attempt it. My two half-hearted attempts caused horrible pain.

The dead nail became company during the boring hours of school. I would push on it feeling the contrast between the dead flesh and the live flesh. The sharp edge of pain became a fascination of endless twitching. It was the way the nail was partially connected to me giving the sense of life but mostly it was a disconnected numb entity hanging on an alien thing.  What would the flesh under the nail look like?

While I was not a perpetual nail biter, when my nails grew long, I took great pleasure in biting, chewing, and eating the nail extras; when the thumbnail finally came off it would be the mother lode. But I wouldn’t chew this nail into small edible pieces.  Sure I would roll this strange but familiar part of myself on my tongue, wedge between my teeth feel such a large piece of nail. But I would save this part of my life along with my Bug collection, coin collection, magazine collection, sea shell collection and whatever other important trinkets I made an important part of my consciousness.

Finally, the living section of my thumb was very small, a tiny island of life on the dead purple nail. My mom and I were going to see “The Day of the Dolphin” at the Media Theater. I was unaware of the emotional roller coaster this film would be for me. Talking dolphins made me love all dolphins. I wanted to swim deep beneath the ocean floor with these happy beautiful creatures. George C. Scott was the finest actor I had ever seen. Then the evil men decided that this could not be. They would use the dolphins to destroy the whole island. During the whole movie, I was working the nail, twisting for beautiful exquisite pain then releasing myself. I could tell this would be the night-­- the night the nail came off. Somewhere in the middle of the movie it twisted off. What joy, I was free. The nail was pliant and huge in my hand. I was exultant. I put the nail in my mouth, flipping it over and over, fascinated by feeling the edges of the nail. Silently I bit on the nail, twisting it and turning it. Then holding it again, careful not to snap or break it in any way. It was so dark in the theater I couldn’t wait to see the nail. It would look so different now that it was finally disconnected.

During my nail fascination, the movie did not escape my attention. The sound of Fa the dolphin squeaking, sent deep chills rushing up and down my spine.

The nail was between my index finger and thumb. I pinched the two ends together feeling the tensile strength of the nail.

Then it happened. The nail popped straight into the dark humid air of the theater. I had no sense of height or direction, it was too dark. Patiently, without panic, knowing I would find the nail no matter what I took. I began to feel my shirt, then my pants, then my seat. Had it made it to the floor?  The movie stopped during these moments. I got down on my knees to feel for the nail. The floor was oily. I could feel it through my jeans. Years and years of popcorn gave an oily feel, the floor felt a little of an old wet bullfrog. I felt over each inch. At one point my mom asked what I was doing. My panicked explanation of a lost treasure was enough to placate her concern. After checking the whole floor twice, a horrible thought came over me. I might not find the nail. I sat back up in the chair and methodically checked myself, the floor, and all the nooks and crannies in the seat hinges. I resigned myself to find the nail when the lights went on at the end of the film.

In the film, the bad guys were strapping a bomb on the dolphins to blow up the island. But the dolphins were too smart; they attached the bombs to the bottom of the boat and the boat blew up. The lab was saved. I was so relieved.

When the dolphins got back to the island, George C. Scott said they would never be left alone and that the dolphins must leave the island forever. Fa repeated over and over “Fa loves pa.  Fa loves pa. Fa loves pa.” Tears came to my eyes in uncontrolled waves. A great lump lay tucked in my throat.  It was too much to deal with. By the end of the movie, when the credits finally released me from the agony, I was spent. We left the theater in a numb march. In the car on the way home, I remembered I hadn’t looked for the nail. To this day, I can only imagine what it really looked like. In a corner of my mind, a complete memory remains saved.

It was in gym in first period. I didn’t like first period gym. I would always get all sweaty and never took a shower, I was shy and uncircumcised and smart enough to know how mean my fellow classmates could be.

It was hockey month which was my favorite of all our activities. I was good at hockey and in the lucky coincidence of life, I always seemed to play on a good team.

The orange plastic ball was hard but light. A direct hit would sting like crazy but it wouldn’t cause injury. Somebody, Chip Mayo, I think, took a bad clap shot. The ball had a crazy spin that drove it away from the goal and directly at my left thumb nail. The ball hit the nail squarely. The pain rose up like flame but it was quickly lost in the adrenalin rush of the game.

Later, in my next class I noticed the nail was snapped underneath the flesh line.  I couldn’t clip this. How could I let this be for three or four weeks till it grew above the flesh or how could I.

I thought maybe I could make the nail tear straight up and I would have only one exposed area.  Mustering my courage, I tore the nail up. The pain was not unbearable but wrong very wrong like eating on the toilet. The nail did not tear up but across. It didn’t hurt as much as the splinter that lodges itself right underneath the nail. But still the pain was horrible and it made me so mad.

Now the torn nail was sticking up. It throbbed. Now in social studies. I didn’t hear the teacher. The class buzzed around me but it was the nail torn and throbbing. An inexcusable frustration. There was no way I could resume social studies, classroom socializing or any part of my life with the nail still attached. I grabbed the nail and pulled. More tore, blood began to trickle from the nail. I was so angry; there was no room for pain, the anger was consuming. I wanted to tear it again but it was like touching the active electric socket a second time. I slouched down on my desk pulling a protective covering around myself, the nail, and my need to rip it off.

I bit down on the nail, hard, numbing. I tore at the nail again more tore. There was only a small section left. A warm wave of relief washed over me. I knew I could get the nail off.

The bell rang, off to math class. I took my seat. I could hear a Sergio Leone soundtrack playing in the background. The showdown was here. My relief in knowing I could get it off diminished my anger, and weakened my resolve to remove it. I took deep breaths, bit down deeply on the nail and ripped. It was off, the pain was irrelevant in the light of my relief.

Bob Deane, April 19, 1994


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