Fiction by Lee Smith
I come here to be touched. I want the lotion, the rubbing, the smoothing, the stroking, the pressing, the kneading fingers, the touch on my toes and feet and legs and hands and shoulders. Oh and I always get the neck massage, too, in addition to the deluxe manicure and the hot stone pedicure and the warm wax treatment on both feet and hands. I especially love the moment when each hand or foot slides into its own plastic bag filled with that melted wax, you think it’s too hot and you can’t stand it, but you can. And I especially love Kim, a round sweet Filipino woman, the salon owner’s wife, who is doing me today, both for her wonderful plump firm hands and also her strength as she goes deep, deep into the tight muscles of my calves and neck. If I can’t get Kim, I ask for Rosa, thin, tense, and angry, or Luis, a gentle, beautiful young man who seems wistful or sad to me though who knows if that is true or not. None of these people speak English beyond the most rudimentary and necessary terms such as “Mani-pedi too-too?” or “Hot-hot?” as I put my feet into the tub, or “You like?” as Kim asks now, massaging my calves, then “Feel so good!” with a nice big smile as she brings the hot towel to cover my knees and lower legs and feet. This is heaven. I smile, too. I love it that we can’t really communicate. I’m not here to talk, I’m here to be touched.
Since Charlie died, many people have actually come up to me and said, “Well, it’s a blessing, isn’t it, after all this time,” or “It’s so sad, but it must be a relief, too.” The fact is, it is not a blessing, and it is not a relief, either. So what if Charlie couldn’t speak to me for the last four years? He knew me, I’m sure of that. The body has its own way of knowing, bone to bone, skin to skin. I believe it comforted him when I touched him or turned him so that we lay curled together side to side like spoons in a drawer, flesh to flesh as in our long life together, two old high school teachers, married for 45 years. The body has a knowledge of its own, this is why I kept him at home and I don’t care what anybody thought of that, my son or his wife or the hospice people or anybody.
So now? I don’t miss Charlie himself, he’d been gone for years. But I do miss his body, his flesh, the feel of him, the touching. So I come here. I come way too often, I know, especially considering that I don’t really have any nails to speak of, I never have. I come too often and I stay too long.
But so does this other woman, also older, like myself, a blowsy, disheveled blonde who occupies the other pedicure chair in this secluded back alcove. I’ve seen her here several times. Today, she has already had her manicure; she waves her hands through the perfumed air, then holds them up to admire her perfect nails, tapered hot pink points, while her feet and ankles soak in the hot tub.
This is a reversal of the standard routine. Usually the pedicure is first, then the manicure while the toenails are drying under the special light at one of the nail stations. I love that special light, so warm on my feet, I love the tiny fan on my fingernails. I tip extravagantly when I leave.
“They already told me I can just soak as long as I want,” this woman suddenly leans forward to tell me, sounding defensive.
What a surprise, a real jolt! I have never talked to any other customer here in The Purple Orchid in this rundown strip mall out on the highway north of town, far from my own staid neighborhood and all my regular haunts. I can’t think what to say.
“I’m having a real bad day,” she goes on, leaning forward, ”but I swear, it always calms me down to come in for a mani/pedi. Kim sweetie, could you come over here and jack up the heat for me, hon? Hot-hot please-please!” she calls, and Kim leaves my chair to go over to her. “Just a little bit more, yes-yes hot-hot, that’s good, that’s good hon, that’s perfect! Thank you, sweetie.”
Kim comes back to me and the other woman settles back in her chair. She was beautiful once, I can see that, about 40 years and 40 pounds ago, in a beauty queen sort of way. In fact she was a beauty queen, I’m sure of it, Miss This or Miss That, back in the day, which was my day, too, of course. But I was not a beauty queen or a cheerleader or a majorette. No, I was in the Beta Club, and the French club, and the band. Flute. This woman’s hair is still fairly full and too long for her age, almost big hair. Hers is not the practiced smile of the professional beauty contestant, though, but an engaging, lopsided grin.
“I tell you what,” she says, looking straight at me, “I really do need to calm down today. I need to focus. I’ve got to get myself together.”
“Well, me too,” I hear myself saying. Maybe this is true.
Kim takes off the hot towel now and massages my feet, rubbing lotion between each toe, buffing that recalcitrant callus with a pumice stone, then trimming my toenails, first one foot, then the other.
“Yeah, I’ve seen you in here before,” the blonde says. “My name is Sandy Neighbors, honey, and my husband is Manly Neighbors, that’s the one that does everybody’s taxes in this whole town, you may have seen his billboards, he’s got them up everyplace, there’s one right near here where Church Street runs into Route 60. Manly Neighbors, he’s got a red tie and a great big old shit-eating grin.”
I start laughing, I can’t help it, I have seen that guy on that billboard, and she’s right. I haven’t laughed in so long it hurts.
“Yeah, he’s real busy right now,” Sandy says. “It’s tax season, you know” — it’s April — “so Mr. Manly Neighbors, Mr. Important, Mr. Big, he just can’t do a goddamn thing with his wife, he’s so busy, he’s a workaholic anyhow, even at the best of times. I think that’s what happens when you grow up poor, you know, you just can’t ever make too much money, you can’t believe it’s real somehow. Him and his mom used to eat the old bread that the Mick or Mack grocery store was throwing out, that’s how poor they was, so I guess we just can’t imagine.”
I really don’t know what to say to that, which doesn’t matter anyway as Sandy Neighbors just goes right on talking while Kim trims my nails and then expertly applies the polish on my toenails, Tijuana Holiday, something new for me, I picked it for the first time today, usually I choose something more subdued such as Dawn Blush which is almost mauve. But who cares? What does it matter?
“Ooh, I just love that red,” Sandy Neighbors says. “And you’ve got the prettiest feet, too!”
I have never been told this before.
“You look real good, honey,” Sandy pronounces now, while leaning way over the side of her pedicure chair to haul up an enormous sequined tote bag which she begins rummaging around in, finally pulling out a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade which I know to be the real stuff that they sell at the liquor store and at the convenience store up the highway where I go to buy my cigarettes, Salems, which I have started smoking again now after quitting for 30 years, nobody knows it though, I don’t do it in public ever, just mostly in the car out on the Interstate or out on the bedroom balcony late at night when I just can’t sleep. Now Sandy is all bent over feeling around in the tote bag again, emerging finally with a flushed face and one of those old churchkey openers that I haven’t seen in years.
“Ta-da!” she pops off the top, throws her head back, and takes a big pull on the bottle then grins at me. “This here is my special lemonade,” she says. “It calms me down real good.” She takes another swig, looks all around as if for spies, then leans across to say to me confidentially, “Actually I’m just going to set over here a while and drink some of my lemonade and try to pass this, this kidney stone that’s just about to bother me to death.”
I was nonplussed. “Can you just do that?” I ask. “Just like that? I mean, pass a kidney stone just because you want to?”
“Well, I don’t know,” she says. “Stick around and we’ll see. But I read in a magazine that citrus is real helpful. And this lemonade is pretty damn good, too. You want to try some?”
“Sure,” I say, and she pops the top of another one and leans way across the pink carpet so I can reach out and get it. I take a big swallow. This stuff is wonderful.
“So what do you think?” she asks. “Pretty good, huh? I think it’s relaxing, too. In fact, I’m getting real relaxed already.”
“I can see that,” I say, settling back, taking another long pull on this longneck bottle, which amuses me, the wordplay, I mean, “long pull” and “longneck.” I used to be a poet in my youth. ”I’m getting pretty relaxed myself.” I take another drink. “So, what’s happening over there? Any progress with that kidney stone?“ I ask, while a part of me seems to have levitated to the ceiling where I hover over us both, me and Sandy Neighbors in our pretty pink alcove which looks like the inside of a seashell, I think suddenly, one of those big curly conch shells that you can blow into.
“Well, I don’t know,” Sandy says, “I can’t tell yet. But I’d really like to go ahead and pass it so I can go on this Senior Water Aerobics Club trip tomorrow. I sure don’t want to pass it while we’re all on the bus. And I’ve already paid for the trip.”
“But where are you going?” I ask, thinking of nearby bodies of water: Kerr Lake, Jordan Lake . . .
“Oh honey, we’re not going swimming! Lord, it’s way too cold for that!” Sandy laughs at my stupidity. “No, honey, we’re going to Savannah on a big fancy bus, it’s a scenic tour kind of thing. Of course I’ve already been to Savannah one time with Manly” — she rolls her eyes — “we had a free trip we won at a Rotary Club raffle. But this trip will be completely different, a girl thing, so it’ll be lots more fun. They’ve got a bar about every 20 feet in Savannah, plus all this old architecture and culture and shit, and low country cooking, that’s what they call it down there, ‘the low country.’”
“I’ve heard that,” I say.
“Hey, you know what? You ought to come along with us!” Sandy cries.
I drain my lemonade, trying to imagine this. Maybe I look doubtful, because she adds, “Without the husbands, you know, why we’ll just have the best time in the world. So you can leave yours at home too.”
“I would,” I say, “but you know, this is kind of short notice.”
She gets out two more longnecks, pops the tops, and hands one over. “Well, even if you can’t make this trip, you ought to join our water aerobics club anyhow, we have a lot of fun in there, splashing around and gossiping. Plus it’s real good for your arthritis and balance and everything.”
This is exactly the kind of suggestion my daughter-in-law and my sister keep making all the time.
“When do you meet?” I ask in spite of myself.
“Ten o’clock Tuesday and Thursday mornings,” she says, “in the pool at the Orange County Recreation Center.”
I shake my head. “I’m a poet,” I say. “That’s when I work.”
“Work?” Sandy snorts. “I thought you said you was a poet.”
“I mean, that’s when I write,” I say, firmly now, convinced of it.
“Well, why don’t you write some other time, then?” Sandy asks with a big shit-eating grin. “You ought to come. You’d just love us!”
“Maybe I will,” I say, just as Sandy grabs both arms of her pedi chair and starts yelling. “Oh oh! Oh my God! Watch out! It’s happening! It’s coming! It’s coming right now!” she shrieks, hanging on for dear life. OH
Lee Smith, who resides in Hillsborough, is the award-winning author of 13 novels and four short story collections and a beautiful memoir of growing up in rural Virginia called Dimestore, published in March of 2016 by Algonquin Books. She is one of the brightest lights of American fiction, a true gift to the Old North State, and an old friend of this magazine.