Catfish Jack’s Jar of Toes: Part 5 of 8
Last week my friend Samuel Clemens was telling me about Jack and Crow as they boarded a train and headed south to see a friend. The man Crow knew had bragged he could supply them with a jar of seven toes for only a small fee. As the two men entered the basement they immediately saw the man they had come to see. He was a tall man, and looked out of place in the cramped basement storage room. The sandstone walled room was cool and clammy feeling. It smelled of harsh chemicals and other foul smells. It’s the room where the medical school kept its bodies for students to practice their skills on.
Crow explained to Jack on the trip down, his friend’s skin coloring was from spending so much time in the basement. Jack believed his pale coloring was in part from being exposed to the strong formaldehyde fumes. Nevertheless, Jack had come this far with Crow’s crazy idea, no sense in stopping now, even by a man who appeared to be only one step away from being part of the bodies stored in the basement.
As the strange looking man approached, Crow spoke up and introduced him to Jack. He offered his hand. As Jack shook it, he could not help but notice the man’s skin felt as if he had been in the cold basement for a long time himself. He then said, “My old friend Crow. Have you come back for the toes?” Crow explained to the pale man they were in search of toes to complete their sideshow act. The pale man remembered Crow’s idea from a couple months ago when he first inquired about toes. Crow encouraged Jack to remove his shoes to prove to the man, he really was missing toes. The pale man was very curious about Jacks missing toes. He had seen feet with missing toes on the dead, but never on a living man. Jack showed him and relived the tale of how he lost them to the fishes.
After Jack finished his story, the pale man led them down a dark hallway to a back storage room. As he stepped inside, he made his way to a small porthole window covered with a dark dust cloth. With a quick snap, he pulled it back revealing the room’s contents. The single round shaft of light that entered, danced with particles of dust and drifting spider webs. Around the room neatly arranged on the wooden shelves were glass jars. Each had a golden reddish tint as the light touched them. The jars had paper labels with their contents listed. Doctors used those items to teach their students about the human body. The pale man made his way along the shelves, looking for a jar labeled “Toes.” He stopped at one large jar and turned it so the two men could see its contents. Inside, they could see a couple complete feet. Homer asked, “You sure you don’t want a couple of whole feet? Got plenty of them, and I could make you a good deal?” Jack shook his head no. Finally, after more searching, the pale man said, “Ah, here they are.” He removed the jar and took it to a table near the window. He then told Crow, “Well, don’t be shy, pick out the ones you want before someone comes along. You are not supposed to be back here.”
Crow used a pair of metal tongs and began selecting toes from the jar. He was trying to match sizes to make them look like they were from the same person. As he picked a single big toe, the pale man said, “That’s a good one.” Jack was uncomfortable being in the closed room. The longer he was there, he was becoming woozy from the smells. He told Crow to quickly pick seven toes, so they could get out of the room. Crow completed his selection and placed them in a special jar they had ordered from an apothecary store. The glass had properties that made everything inside look larger. He figured that way, people could see the toes real good.
After a few more minutes they were back in the small room that led to the outside. Crow placed the glass jar inside a heavy canvas bag. He then turned to the pale man. “Homer, how can I ever repay you for your generosity?”
The tall pale man looked at Crow with a strange look as he said, “Well you can pay me five dollars for each toe. It’s not likely you could find them anywhere else and from what your tellin’ me, youins’ be thinkin’ you’ll be makin’ good money showin’ them toes. I figure five dollars is not a lot to be payin’ a feller fer’ them. Besides, within’ the extra money you’d be payin’ me, I figured I can get outside and be a gettin’ me some sunshine. I’ve been feelin’ a little pale lately.” He laughed at the irony of his comment.
Once again Jack and Crow convinced the man to give them the toes, and take an IOU for thirty-five dollars, payable on returning from the summer’s side show tour along the river. They now owed money to the widow lady, who sewed the hide, and the man who gave them glue. Money to the man who carved the fish. Not to mention the money earned cleaning the theater’s privy, and then paid to Birdy for the cow hide. So far, the business adventure had put Jack into the financial hole for over two hundred dollars. Jack realized he owed more money than he had made in the last year. And they still had to purchase painted banners, advertising their show, along with a tent to house their act. But, down deep, he was convinced Crow’s adventure was going to work. People liked to see the odd and strange, while hearing a good story.
Upon returning to town, they collected their creation. They carefully covered it before transporting it to Billy Harson’s shop on lower Main Street. He had prepared them a special wooden box in which to show their prize. It could be placed on a table, and the two front doors opened, showing what was inside. Attached on each side of the box were small lanterns. When lit, they each gave an eerier illumination to the yellow-eyed monster. Pieces of Spanish moss hung down from the top, giving the fish an appearance of hiding in the watery growth. Jack knew they truly had themselves a side show act worth hundreds of dollars, maybe even thousands. Time had come to travel down river to join the side show. Early the next morning, Jack and Crow set off towards glory, fame, and riches – or so they hoped.