End of the Line

Steppin’ Out

Thoughts on a brand-new stride

illustration: Barry Blitt

A year or so ago, my legs and feet stopped feeling like mine anymore. I think the cause was lingering postantibiotic Lyme disease, but since Medicare doesn’t recognize chronic Lyme until you’ve been disabled by it for two years, I couldn’t afford to have it. What I could do was sell my symptoms. To that end, I resolved to employ all my tools as a Southern wordsmith. And I felt health-care professionals would be grateful—“At last, a patient who doesn’t fall back on clichés.” But no.

“How much pain, one to ten?” they would ask.

“Gee, I don’t know, what’s ten? I remember the time hornets got all over Daddy and all he could do was go rigid and say, ‘Oh my soul.’ My legs never hurt as bad as I imagine that did—but now, I wouldn’t even say pain, exactly. It’s more—for instance, I don’t have any spring in my step.”

“Well…,” they would say, with a meaningful glance at the chart that revealed my numerical age. 

“I don’t mean just that I lack my youthful pep,” I would say. “I mean, you know how when you press your foot against the ground, and swing the other leg forward, you expect some—what’s a better word than spring? Bounce, maybe. I lack bounce. And balance. I was dancing to ‘Hava Nagila’ at a friend’s wedding and somebody hooked my arm and whoops! I went flying. ‘Can’t handle that Jewish dancing?’ people inquired. But it wasn’t that. It could have been a Methodist dance, if there were such a thing. Once I’m off balance, I’m heading for kersplat.”

“You experience dizziness?”

“I wouldn’t say dizziness, exactly,” I would say. “It’s more that my lower extremities have been rendered unfamiliar. If it was just a hitch in my gitalong, I could handle that. It’s two hitches, and the left-leg hitch is different from the one on the right. Then too, my feet. You know how at the end of ‘Flat Foot Floogie and the Floy Floy,’ Louis Armstrong sings, ‘Flat foot, slew foot, sugar foot, cush foot…’? Truth is, I’ve gotten right cush-footed.”

“Numbness?”

“You know they say age is only a number—and I am getting number and number. But that’s just something I’ve been looking for an opportunity to say. As to my feet, I wouldn’t say numbness, as such. It’s more like—you know when you’re at the beach, wearing plastic shoes, and a layer of sand gets packed in between the sole of the shoe and the sole of your foot?”

“Pins and needles?”

“No, I wouldn’t say pins and needles, exactly. Once, on a fishing trip, a friend of mine, as a joke, snuck some shrimp into my sneakers. Unpeeled shrimp. Dead, but—” 

And the medical person would look forlornly at my chart—the chart that required, not les mots justes, but rather checks in certain boxes.

So I decided to “take my foot in my hand,” as the old folks used to say, and work out, on my own, a new way of walking. I’m not sure how I walked, before. If I saw my old self walking down the street, I might not know who it was. But I suspect I never walked like, let’s say, a boulevardier. Not a street-smart walker. Maybe not even comfortably road smart. In Sanctuary, William Faulkner mentions country folks walking into town “unmistakable by the unease of their garments as well as by their method of walking, believing town dwellers would take them for town dwellers too, not even fooling one another.” 

But there are lots of good down-to-earth ways of walking. My mother would describe somebody as traipsing, gallivanting, moseying, hotfooting, sashaying, waltzing right in and waltzing right out, or just poking or dragging or plowing along. Mumu never lollygagged, she was always going at a slow lope, with her coattails popping. 

The gallivant is the one that appealed to me. Sounds like you’re getting away with something. But the only image I could go by is that of Irene Dunne, in Show Boat, singing “Gallivantin’ Around” in blackface, where angels fear to tread. So I am working on a classic saunter. If that doesn’t pan out, I’ll try projeckin’ around. 

Or maybe I can learn to walk on my hands. Minnie Pearl said she met a woman who mentioned she had just turned seventy-seven. “Oh, well,” Minnie responded, “just glory in the parts that work.”


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