S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: “Polished,” by Teresa Milbrodt

“Don’t do anything until you hear from me,” Jeremy says, kissing me hard on the lips before he gets on the bus.  There are two hundred bottles of very expensive nail polish in his black wheeled briefcase, and we’re praying this works.  My stomach hurts already.

It’s a hot afternoon in Pittsburgh, and humid because it’s always humid.  There’s nothing for me to do but slog back to Frankie’s apartment, sit in front of the AC window unit, take some antacids, and hope Frankie doesn’t come home early.

If he never comes home that would be okay, but I’ve never believed in miracles.  At least ones that happen when you need them.  I like being able to count on things and Jeremy is usually like that, predictable, until just a few days ago.  That’s when he took all our furniture back to the Salvation Army and said we were splitting town.

Jeremy loves being a manicurist, a career you wouldn’t expect of him since he’s a bit ratty.  He wears button-down shirts we buy at Goodwill and has a black mustache that looks like a dead caterpillar taped above his upper lip.  Jeremy thinks it makes him distinguished, but that’s another one of the dreams I’m too polite to shatter.  Protecting dreams should be part of everyone’s marriage vows.  His first wife was so honest that it left him a nervous wreck, but we were both married to control freaks in our previous lives.

I stayed with my husband long enough to make him seven years’ worth of dinners and listen to seven years’ worth of work gripes.  He paid my cosmetology school tuition in return, then I grabbed the suitcase I’d packed three years earlier.  If I’d learned anything from my mother it was to have a suitcase ready to go.  At the same time, I can put up with a lot discomfort in return for certainty, which explains why I’ve stayed at the nail salon for this long.

Jeremy has more of a problem with our boss than me.  She doesn’t like much of anybody, but she hates his guts, yells at him for doing sloppy work even when a client’s nails are perfect.

“Those cuticles were not up to par,” she said last week, towering over him in her flat-foot orthopedic shoes and Kewpie doll makeup.  Our boss bitches about everyone, so the rest of us manicurists crowded Jeremy during lunch and reminded him that she’s a tyrant.

“Don’t you worry, honey,” said Clara, the oldest and calmest nail technician.  “She’s blowing off steam.  Your work is so good it could be framed.”

Jeremy strangled a smile.  I beamed at Clara because my husband needs support from people other than me.  I’m not exactly tired of propping up his weak ego, but I worry he doesn’t believe my hugs.

When Frankie comes home early from his job at the copy shop, I’m not happy and not surprised.  He’s more Jeremy’s friend than mine, and I think he has eyes for me.  Frankie is a big guy, Jeremy says he used to wrestle in high school, but that muscle has turned to fat.

“Want a beer?” Frankie says, patting me on the shoulder.  I swear he looks for any excuse to get close to me, and can break a sweat by walking five paces to the refrigerator.  Frankie gets two beers and opens both of them.  Maybe I’m imagining his advances, but I like to be on the safe side, which means away from him.

“I’m going to the store,” I say, grabbing my purse and cell phone and vaulting out the door.  I need to walk off nervous energy.

Don’t do anything until you hear from me, Jeremy said, but how long will that take?  It’s been five hours.  I’m worried the police found him and he’s at the station in one of those interrogation rooms with his wheeled briefcase and a few hundred bottles of nail polish and a bright light shining in his face as a burly cop with a Brooklyn accent asks him to explain The Meaning of This.

It was a dumb risk.  I wanted to tell him we should grab our stuff and the nail polish and split.  We both have a suitcase full of clothes to our names, because Jeremy says in our new life we’ll buy new things.  I should have sold the polish instead of him.  I look more put-together, but I have his self-esteem to consider, and it was stomped on by his ex too many times.  I couldn’t stand to brush him aside and see that look on his face like he’s going to cry.  He never cries in front of me, but his eyebrows crinkle pathetically and he gets an expression that says Why can’t I do anything right?

Everyone asks why Jeremy started doing nails, wondering if he’s a pervert with a foot fetish, but his mom had him give her pedicures when he was a kid.  His dad had split, and she never remarried.  I told Jeremy that was a good decision on her part.  He shrugged.  His mom was a bank teller and wanted her hands and feet to look good because she wore a lot of sandals.  Jeremy had a knack for fine work, and those years of training made him a precise nail artist and a good listener.  That’s what his clients tell me.

To them, nail technicians only exist in the salon, a space outside their world.  We don’t know the people they’re talking about, so we take our client’s side whether she’s discussing marital problems or kid problems or co-worker problems.  We give her that sympathetic smile suggesting she’s right.  We learn a hell of a lot about our clients’ personal lives, too much at times, but we get better tips for offering that sympathetic ear.  A manicure is like therapy, except my clients emerge with great-looking hands.

Jeremy gets better tips than anyone at the salon, but after our last paycheck bounced he said that was it.

“We’re getting away from that bitch,” he said a week ago after we racked up one hundred dollars in late fees for bounced checks.  Our boss said it was our fault for not having enough money in our accounts.  I would have waited for a third check not to clear before I skipped town, but I can’t think about just me anymore.

I wish I knew what Clara and the other nail technicians said when they walked into the salon today and found Jeremy and I cleaned out our booths last night.  I don’t know how long it’ll take my boss to discover we took three boxes of nail polish.  We just got in a new shipment, and it could be a month before she notices the bottles are gone.  Or she might have called the police this morning.

“We can sell it for a lot to the right people,” Jeremy said last night when we loaded the boxes in the back of his car.  He knows how to sound like a nail polish spokesman since so many of them come into the shop.  Jeremy even made up business cards on his computer and had them printed on card stock at the local copy shop at three in the morning.

But there must have been a snag.  The cops are on to him.  Why the hell did I let him talk me into this?  I love him, of course I love him, though he falls to panic at the word “no,” like it’s a bad flashback from his first marriage.  But what do I risk to keep him smiling?

I walk to the food co-op, want to buy cookies that are allegedly healthy, but before I skirt in the door I see a fat guy in a blue button-down shirt and straw hat sitting behind a card table.  He wags a finger in my direction.

“C’mere,” he says.

I do because I’m curious.  He grabs my hand.  I pull it away.

“What the hell?” I say.

“I’m going to read your palm,” he says.

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I say.

“I didn’t say I was going to tell you something you should believe,” he says.

“How much?” I say.  Panhandlers can get aggressive, give a service then demand money.

“Free,” he says, “unless you want to get me a coffee.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“When did we start the interview?  Can’t a man do what he wants in retirement?”

I hold out my hand.  It’s half the size of his.  He touches the back of my palm, brings it close to his face, and wrinkles his nose.

“Relationship troubles,” he says.

I roll my eyes.  “You could say that to anyone.”

“I’m saying it to you.  And money problems.”

“And I had a dog I loved when I was six,” I say.

“No you didn’t, you had a cat.”

I look at him with my head cocked.

“I’m reading your palm,” he says.  “See?”

I relax my hand a little.

“You’ve never been in trouble with the law but you’re worried about it,” he says.  “There will be a career change in the future.  A career change and a move.  But not the move you expect.”

“What kind of move?” I say.

“An unexpected one.  Your palm doesn’t reveal too much.  Kind of like you.”  He lets go of my hand.

“That’s it?” I say.

“What else do you want for free?” he says.

I walk to the coffee shop next door and order two cups of the house blend to go.

“Thanks,” he says when I hand him the coffee.

“Don’t mention it,” I say.

“I knew you were going to say that,” he says.

I pace back to Frankie’s apartment and mutter a mantra for nail polish sales success.

This will work.  This will work.  This will work. 

We have a shoebox full of thank-you notes from our clients, transcripts and certificates from cosmetology school, and copies of our bounced checks for anyone who wants to know why we had to leave the old salon.

            This will work.  This will work.  This will work.

We can sit down and give someone a demo manicure.  Jeremy is especially good at detail work, painting little hearts and flowers.

            Thiswillwork.  Thiswillwork.  Thiswillwork.

There are no messages on my cell phone.  I can’t call him.  He said if something went wrong, that might be best…  Dammit.

Jeremy said our boss owed us those three boxes of nail polish for grief and harassment and late fees.  At eleven o’clock last night that seemed like a logical idea.  She never apologized for the bounced checks, either.


I reach the steps to Frankie’s apartment but can’t go up.  That’s why I march back to the card table and say to the old guy, “What else can you tell me?”

“So you believe me.”  He smiles.

“Not really.  I want another reading so I can come back and say you were wrong.”

“And if you don’t come back, I was right,” he says.

“Maybe.”  I hold out my hand.  “What’s there?”

“Daisies,” he says.

“Daisies?” I say.

He nods.

“I hate daisies.”

“They’re a perfectly respectable flower,” he says.  “But later you can return and tell me how wrong daises were.”

“I thought you were never wrong,” I say.

“That’s right,” he says.

I buy another cup of coffee, walk back outside, stand next to the guy at his card table, and take out my cell phone.  No messages.

“Waiting for a call?” he says.

“I want to hear what you tell other people,” I say.

“There will be children, voyages, and mysterious strangers.”

My phone rings.  I stare at it.  My phone rings again.  It sounds like a normal phone ringing.  I don’t like anything fancy.

“Are you going to get that?” says the palm reader.

“I don’t know,” I say.  “I might let it go to voice mail.”

“Daisies,” he says.  “It’s all daisies.”

My mother brought me daisies in the hospital after I broke my leg falling out of a tree.  She said my stepfather picked out the flowers.  I’ve hated daisies ever since.  I knew she was lying because my stepfather never spoke to me, just yelled at her.

He was as predictable as a summer storm, sometimes loving, but other times hard and volatile.  He broke dishes and vases and my mother’s finger while I stayed in my bedroom and plotted my escape.   I got out of the house as quickly as possible, found a crappy job and married a crappy guy (though it took me a couple years to figure that out).  While my husband was controlling, he was predictably so.  Every night he wanted to have dinner and bitch about work and get the laundry list of what I’d done all day and see the receipts from the money I’d spent.  But he gave me money, which made me a willing prisoner for seven years until I built enough of my own life to say, “Screw you.”

And now my future is locked in a suitcase of nail polish.

My phone rings a third time.  A fourth.  A fifth.  Then it’s silent.

“Know why I read palms?” the guy says.  “People want to know the future.  If I tell them a future, they’re happier.”

“What if you tell them the future is going to suck?”

“Then they can get ready for that,” he says.  “Life isn’t daisies all the time.”

“Guess not,” I say.  My phone rings again.

I turn it off and walk back down the sidewalk, but I’m not going to Frankie’s.  I’m going to the salon to explain the whole sordid story.  How Jeremy went off the deep end last night and convinced me to come to the store with him and clean out our work stations.  He spent all day today trying to convince me to move to Louisville, while I tried to convince him to go back to our jobs.  He left without me and we’re officially broken up and he can go to hell.

My boss will believe any story about Jeremy, no matter how pathetic, because she hates his guts.  She’ll be glad to have me back because she needs good nail technicians and knows I’m one of the best, even if she won’t admit it.  She’ll spend all week badmouthing Jeremy, because she loves a good target.

I’ll stay with Clara because she has couch space, room for every niece or nephew or cousin who passes through town, so I doubt she’ll object to putting up a co-worker.  Maybe I’ll tell her parts of the real story eventually, but I want to hear from Jeremy, know that he sold the nail polish and found a new job and an apartment and a few other things we can count on.  When all that’s over, I’ll find the palm reader again and give him some answers.