Cast of Wonders 512: A Full Set of Specials
A Full Set of Specials
by Marguerite Sheffer
I’m not used to holding strangers’ hands, the way Miss Tina is. I don’t like how they go all soft and strange in mine, all vulnerable. Like anyone can walk in the door, their hands in any state, and they just let you touch them. The sharp tang of the remover is everywhere, not covered by the fake floral-smelling lotions at all, just blown around by the hum of the little drying fans.
Miss Tina is showing me the ropes at Pure Elegance. It’s my third week on the job: weekends, and twice a week after school. I’ve leveled up from just sweeping the floor and wiping down the manicurists’ tables to doing polish removal and general prep. Now I get to sit down, sometimes, and when it’s slow I can check my phone. Miss Tina’s family, somehow, but I couldn’t tell you where in my family tree you’d find her. My mom sends me with extra rice and beans and pickled onions for her. Every day when I pull out the tupperware Miss Tina shakes her head like she doesn’t need or want the generosity, but she puts it in the minifridge and eats it at her station all the same.
I’m putting the little tin foil nail covers, like thimbles filled with cotton balls and acetone, on a grandma-type lady with some of those bluetooth headphones in her ears. Her hands have sunspots. Her hands remind me of pterodactyl claws, almost webbed where her old skin sags.
She isn’t watching me work, but Miss Tina is. Miss Tina looks over to me from her table where she’s got a prize customer (regular and bride-to-be come April, so if today goes well she might bring back the whole bridal party; big business). She gives me a look like so-so, just alright, step it up. I don’t know how she can find fault in my tin foil work from all the way over there. I squint at the hands in mine. This is just a season in my life, a temporary job to cover the gap the counselors tell us to anticipate from financial aid. I’m ready to be someplace else. Anyplace else. A place where things happen.
But for Miss Tina Pure Elegance is everything. Her whole world is nails, appointments, and this shop, which she just rents. She fussed at me last week when I didn’t get into the corner with the broom enough. She’s decorated the place with strings of LEDs and second-hand wine glasses filled with those colorful glass beads that serve no purpose other than attempting to look nice, and coming up short. Waste of money, but I don’t say that. All her attempts to class up the place just call attention to how dingy it is.
In walks Juliette.
Juliette is just a few years ahead of me, graduated, must be two years ago. She is looking raggedy. Her eyes are tired and her hair could use doing. She’s wearing slides and gym shorts instead of proper clothes. I look deep, then I look away. Word is her family’s place outside the levees took it hard when Hurricane Earl hit a few weeks back. I didn’t know she was back in town yet.
“Hey Miss Tina,” Juliette says.
“Hey Jules, what today?”
“I need the specials.”
Miss Tina lets the bride-to-be’s hand go limp in hers, looks Juliette over. If there’s a polar opposite of “pure elegance,” that’s what Juliette exudes right now.
“Full set?” Miss Tina asks.
“Yeah, full set.” Juliette’s playing with the color samples, holding them up to her fingers to test the shades against her skin. “But I’ll have to hit you back later.”
I hold my breath, waiting for Miss Tina to let her have it.
Miss Tina’s specials aren’t even on the big, laminated menu sign. They’re the most expensive treatment Miss Tina offers, and I’ve heard of them, of course, but never seen them. They’re for big days, days that need a stamp of glamour and good fortune: bat mitzvahs, weddings, graduations, quinceaneras—days like that. Blessing days. And Juliette’s asking us to trust she’ll come back with the money later? Looking all busted like that? It’s not like the hurricane didn’t work us over too. The building made it through okay, but there were lost hours and lost wages and we all had to empty our fridges—another thing I won’t have to deal with when I’m gone from here. What does Juliette want with nice nails now anyways?
Miss Tina holds still a beat, but she doesn’t throw Juliette out. She just purses her lips and nods. Then she waves me towards the bead curtain that separates the shop’s storage from the front. “Elsie, get the special powders from the back, will you? On the bottom shelf, next to the batteries.”
I go and look where Miss Tina’s told me.
They look plain enough, just a plastic bin of four dip powders in the normal clear screw-top canisters that fit in the palm of your hand. Each is labelled with masking tape.
“For love,” says one in sharpie. “For wealth” says another. “For luck,” “For strength,” in Miss Tina’s pretty, perfect cursive. Each is less than half-full. I twist open the canister labelled “luck” and take a gentle sniff, like that would give away its secret. It doesn’t smell like anything extraordinary, just baby powder.
I bring them out from the back and set them out in front of Miss Tina. She motions for me to bring my rolly-chair over next to her and watch. The bride-to-be is drying in the fans now, looking a little peeved to have lost her throne to a new customer. The pterodactyl can wait with her hands softening in the water a minute longer. Pretty soon they’re both peeking over our way anyhow.
I don’t know how to describe the colors of those powders. None of them is just one thing.
Love is the blue of a butterfly’s wing, the powder dark and light and shining with every other color, too.
Wealth is an orange so bold it makes you blink, and when you blink your eyelids you see the dark behind them is darker than normal.
Luck is a green, but not a cheesy, four-leaf clover green: instead, the green of the swamp, green on green on green.
And strength is a pale, pale pink that is barely there, but there.
Miss Tina, with the lightest of taps on the canisters’ bottoms, spills out a small amount of each powder into a bowl on her work station. The full set is all four. She pours the powders together into one another; they swirl like a laptop screensaver. They mingle but don’t blur. Some of the colors jump to the foreground, others shimmy in the background. They don’t become muddy. They are celestial, like a poster of a Hubble photograph, a supernova.
Juliette licks her chapped lips, and I get it. The mixture looks like crushed rock candy, fine powdered sugar, and I want for a moment to taste it, too. Tantalizing, that’s the word for it.
Miss Tina starts to prepare Juliette’s nails. She scrapes under their musty ridges, pushes back the grey cuticles, and pulls the hangnails. She sharpens their shape so they are brutal curves.
“The kids okay?” Miss Tina asks. The kids are Juliette’s four siblings who live with her in the house outside the levees.
“Still in Mississippi.”
Juliette tells us how before she came to Pure Elegance she’d been to check on the state of that house. It was all too much, she says. The light fixture and fan hanging down in the middle of the room by a frayed cord. The ceiling open to the sky in a few spots. The walls drooping like wet paper mache. And, all over everything, a layer of spotty black mold—over clothes, books, the laptop on loan from the community college, even the tv screen.
First, she sat in the middle of the living room, on the coffee table because the couch was in such a bad state, with her head in her hands. She did this for a good long while. She kicked at the soggy, ruined carpet under her feet, tried to summon the energy to fix something, anything. The grime and the mold were on her now, too. Her nails, smelling like a used sponge, now that had been too much to bear. So, she came to the shop.
Miss Tina lightly grasps each of Juliette’s fingertips, and dips them one by one in the powder. Three coats, shellacking in between, until they are as hard as a turtle’s shell. She adds a final topcoat of gloss. Juliette’s nails shine and sparkle and glimmer, drawing the eye. Like they came from someplace else.
As Juliette is saying her thank-yous and her goodbyes and getting up to go, Miss Tina pulls out a Bible with a tattered leather cover. She asks Juliette to pick a passage for her. A bit of wisdom, to tell her fortune: a small gesture, a little down payment. Juliette smiles, sheepish, suddenly more like a girl her own age again than a woman exhausted from a thousand years of living. She flexes her fingers, as if trying them out, waggling her new, beautiful nails. She slides her pointer finger like a knife between two thin pages, and opens it, passing the book to Miss Tina, who reads, nods, and without showing it to anybody, slips the thick, tattered book back in the drawer of her manicure station. Miss Tina must really believe in this stuff.
The windchimes on the door jingle and Juliette is gone.
After she leaves us, the specials start working and scheming right away.
Juliette says the first thing she noticed was that she was just itching to scratch, to poke, to tap her pretty nails, on everything. On the bus ride to the community center she found herself tapping out an upbeat rhythm with her nails on the pole. The bus lurched and jerked and there was only room to stand—they were still only rolling on a Saturday schedule—but each thump and each pothole seemed to be part of her song. That might not seem like much, but she said that’s how it got started.
Next thing is, she swears she got to thinking, was fully sure, that if she could peel away a thin layer the bus would be made of gold: the metal poles and the seats and the panelling—everything just pure gold covered in a thin sheet of false cover, like it was laminated in plastic. So she said excuse me to the person next to her and got down on her hands and knees right there on the bus. The floor was sticky. She started to scratch at it with her nails. Nothing came away but grime. But, when she was getting back up, she glimpsed a scratch off ticket under one of the seats. And what was she built for but scratching?
That’s how she won $500 before she even got out of downtown.
It kept going like that, the specials. At the community center, when she made it to the front of the aid line a pretty National Guard lady in camos and boots said her nails were “wowie, just gorgeous.” The lady looked at her all over, slowly, like Juliette was something good and warm and beautiful herself and not just another face in the line, not another victim. Like she was something more than resilient.
When Juliette peeled open the wrapper on the Humanitarian Daily Ration packet they gave her at the front of that line, she found it had two of everything in it, miraculously: two fig bars, two lentil stews, two pop-tarts, two ten-year shelf-life cartons of water. She couldn’t figure out how it all fit in that foil wrapper, but it did.
That night Juliette slept in her car using her jacket as a blanket. She found an apple in a side cup holder, one from before the storm. It was fresh and good, no brown spots or softness. She ate it in big, crunchy bites, down to the core, like she was scraping sweet meat off a rib, down to that apple’s bones. No one bothered her and she didn’t even wake up sore.
The next day, the world wasn’t better, exactly, but Juliette woke up feeling invincible. Impervious. Too good for everything. Her fingernails caught the growing light, and shimmered. She felt fancy. She wanted to prick and poke everything with her beautiful nails. To see what would happen, what it might give her in return.
She went back to her family’s house, and the scene had not changed from before, but this time her hands were hungry for it. She did not shirk away from the black mold, but began to pick and scratch at it. She was bigger and badder than last time. With her pointer and thumb nails pinched together she was able to snag a corner of that mold, like peeling a tricky boiled egg or a layer of dead skin. It came up as one sheet: a dark, horrible cape. She lifted it up and away, off of her brothers’ playsets, off of her work clothes, off of her sister’s biology textbook. She took that dank curtain of mold out of the house and threw it in the gutter. Then she squirted some sanitizer into her palms, flicked it up to embrace the tips of her enchanted fingertips, still shiny, and got on with it.
She spent the afternoon salvaging what could be salvaged, packing it in her trunk in trash bags, and taking photos for the insurance. On top of the fridge, somehow safe where she had stashed it, she found her ukelele.
Finally, the walls. First, Juliette drummed them with her fingertips. This made a hollow, damp sound. She poked a sharp nail right through a sheet of drywall. It was like butter. The walls would need to come down anyway, right? She started ripping away huge soft chunks of sheetrock. It was glorious. The waterlogged bones of the old house seemed glad to touch the air again. They seemed to moan at her. No, no they didn’t seem, they were moaning at her. She kept ripping and tearing and throwing crumbling pieces aside. A face peered out at her, big eyed, whiskers: a kitten, moaning. How had this mangy thing gotten into the walls? Where did it come from? It must have been seeking shelter from the storm. She reached in and grabbed it under the armpits and hauled it out. It was covered in white sheetrock dust. It scratched at her, and she laughed. She scratched it right back. She gave it some cold lentil stew. When she packed the car to go, full of salvage and heirlooms, closing the door on the wrecked house, she held the car open for the cat, expecting it to run away. But it shimmied in and soon fell asleep in the front seat. That’s her cat now.
I know all this because Juliette came back. She looked healthier. She paid. She was good for it. She left a nice tip.
Her nails, her specials, had started to chip around the edges. They didn’t look like I remembered. Sure, they were colorful and sparkly. But they weren’t hypnotizing. I couldn’t tell you if anything truly magical was still there.
But she stayed for a while and chatted with us. She played us a sweet tune on her ukulele, such a small instrument with such a big sound.
Sometimes I find myself humming that tune still, as I buff and file. I hum it when I’m taking care to massage the lotion all the way into my customers’ palms and up their wrists, rubbing their warm knuckles with the pads of my fingers. I check the polish for smudges. I take time. I’m careful with it. After hearing Juliette’s story I think it’s not nothing to help someone feel like that—special.
There’s this moment I’ll miss when I go off to school. It’s when customers take their hands out of the dryer and stretch out their fingers and turn the nails towards themselves, considering the results. In that moment, when their hands are turned away from me, I can’t see their nails or the gloss anymore. Instead, I watch their slow, surprised smiles at how beautiful they came out, at seeing that their hands are for something bigger than just working or grasping.
About the Author
Marguerite (Maggie) Sheffer is an educator and writer who lives in New Orleans. Her writing also appears in The Pinch. She is a founding member of Third Lantern Lit (www.thirdlanternlit.com), a community writing organization, and a volunteer at 826 New Orleans (826neworleans.org). Maggie is a member of the Nautilus writing group and a MFA Candidate at Randolph College. You can find her online at @mlensheffer (twitter.com/mlensheffer).
About the Narrator
Laura Hobbs works in infosec by day and is a random crafter by night. Twitter is her social media of choice, and she despises the word “cyber”. When asked nicely, she sometimes reads things for people on the internet. You can find her online at soapturtle.net.