After a restless night—one of many in a restless year--when he awoke several times feeling that he was on the verge of something, a cold, or an allergy attack or who knew what? a perplexed Bill Wicker called in sick—and after a lazy morning of looking at the newspaper and the weather channel and drinking one cup of French Roast after another, he allowed Marcie, his wife of two years, to talk him into driving her down to the nail salon.
“If you were really sick, I wouldn’t have asked you,” Marcie said when they were already in the car. She then made what turned out to be a quite fateful remark. “You should come in with me. That big toe-nail of yours, you turned over in bed last night and scratched me.”
“I don’t remember that,” Wicker said, keeping his eye on the road. He felt a little bit of whirling in his head, and he recalled that his therapist, when he went to her, referred to this state as a “complex.” Perplexed—complex—it was just difficult, when you never counted on feelings things this way, ever.
“Trust me, you did it,” she said.
“Well, that’s what happens when you live together. Where?”
“Where did I scratch you?”
“I said, in bed.”
“No, where on your body?
“On my leg.”
“Show me.” Though he felt rather listless after his night of waking and turning, he managed to leer at her, his old college-boy way of feigning desire.
Marcie gracefully pulled up her skirt enough to show him her tan calf, and twisted around in her seat to reveal a long fresh white tear in the fleshiest part of it.
“Sorry,” he said, “I don’t remember doing that.”
“It was the middle of the night. Just keep driving. It’s almost noon.”
He conducted their small, fuel-efficient car down Macomb Street and into the traffic on Connecticut. It always amazed him, a man usually in his office at this hour, that trucks and busses, ambulances and automobiles and fire-trucks made such a mess of things just before noon.
Though what the hell, he didn’t know anything these days. The big boss, Jewish and knowledgeable, came down on his ass, his immediate manager, a black guy with a Harvard MBA, nagging him the way his mother used to nag his father, not with any straight-forward challenge but just sniping here and there. No wonder—Wicker felt this thought rising as a hot sensation in his chest—I lied and took the day off just now, in the middle of the big deal and all that. Malingering at home, he had forgotten about it for a while, as he did with a lot of things, and now all of a sudden remembered, thus producing more heat.
“Here you are,” he said as he pulled into a space just around the corner from the address she had given him, which happened to be just around the corner from their neighborhood liquor store, a route he knew quite well.
Marcie got out of the car, but leaned back in the open passenger window, showing cleavage.
“What?” He pulled his iPhone out of his pocket, ready to spend time in space with music on the drive home while she had them do, whomever they were, whatever they did for her toes. Toes—it remained for him one of those mysteries in the world of women from which he was, as he saw it then, forever barred—and gladly.
“Come in with me.”
He kept his eyes on her chest.
“Come on, come in and get that nasty toe-nail fixed,” she said, showing him even more of what he always took a good look at at night.
“Nails are for girls,” he said. He turned his head aside, not wanting to prove to her that all he really cared about these days was her body, though both of them had sort of gotten the idea that this was, in spite of every tenderness he had showed her in the early days of their marriage, just about the truth.
“Men are girls too sometimes,” Marcie said.
Now she was playing to one of his perverse little habits.
“If I were a girl,” Wicker said, “I’d never get out of the house. I’d take my clothes off and stand in front of the mirror all day long.”
Marcie nodded at his familiar joke.
“You and your tits,” she said.
“’Balls!’ said the Queen. ‘If I had ‘em, I’d be King!’”
Marcie kept a straight face.
“You sure you won’t come in with me?”
“I don’t have an appointment,” he said, feeling rather definitive. He was ready to return home, drink a beer and do he didn’t know what else, except it wouldn’t have anything to do with work.
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You do. I made an appointment for both of us.”
“Tricked you,” she said.
“You did,” he said.
“So come on,” she said.
“—going to be any other men up there?” She gave him a big smile. “Now how did I know you were going to ask that question? Sometimes there are. Men do this, too. It’s healthy for your feet, whatever you have between your legs.”
Her remark sparked him around.
“I’m your slave,” he said.
“Yeah?” he said, motioning her away from the window while he pushed the button to raise it. “You wish what?” he said when he got out of the car. “Do you have any quarters?”
“I do,” she said, reaching into her purse and fishing out some coins. “But I wish you listened to me more often. That’s not being a slave. That’s just what you and your friends think is being a slave.”
“But look at this,” Wicker said as they walked to the entrance of the building.
Toe Tally Nails by Nan
Luxury for Less.
“I’m doing what you tell me. I’m coming along with you. I am your slave.”
“It’s called being a good companion,” she said. “I could have made it easier for myself, you know. I could have come alone.”
“Puh, puh,” he said, alluding with his mouth noise to one of the things that sometimes passed between them in the night. It seemed to make her wince, and then laugh.
“Men are beasts,” he said as she led him up the stairs.
“Why do you say that?” She turned around and gave him a guarded look, realizing—he could sometimes read her thoughts, at least simple thoughts like this—that he was staring at her buttocks as she moved. “Oh, I get it. Well, behave yourself when we get up there.”
“What could I do wrong in a nail salon?” he said.
“Really--?” She took another breath but cut herself off. But not soon enough.
“Sorry,” she said. “I was just kidding you.”
“I was not guilty,” he said. “And you weren’t kidding as much as you think.”
“You brought it up.”
“Not exactly. It’s just that it always seems to be on your mind.”
Marcie paused on one of the upper steps.
“I wonder why.”
Wicker stopped just below her.
“So now what am I supposed to do? More penance?”
“No,” she said.
He could see the veil fall between her face and his.
“No,” she went on, “we are going to have our pedicures and have a good time.”
“Christ, that’s what I want as much as you, having a good time! That’s why I took the day—“
“You took the day off because—”
“Oh, Miss Marcie!”
He was interrupted by a raven-haired Asian woman, surprisingly bosomy compared to his stereotypical notion, poking her head out the doorway of the nail parlor.
“Hi, Nan,” Marcie said. “Look who I brought.”
The woman smiled appreciatively at Wicker.
“Just as you say, a handsome fellow. Come in, come in…”
She ducked back inside.
Wicker found himself blushing.
“You talked to her about me?”
“Bill, women talk.”
“I’ve learned that the hard way,” Wicker said.
Marcie put a finger to her lips.
“Not another word,” she said.
“It was your friend who blabbed,” he said.
“My ex-friend. And she might not have blabbed if you hadn’t fucked her.”
Her use of that word hit him like a hammer to the chest.
“I was drunk, men do that, I’ve told you every time you bring this up.” He turned and spoke as if to the wall only a few inches from his face. “Christ, when is this going to end? You make me breakfast, we fight about it. I buy you flowers, we fight about it. We take a trip, we fight about it.” He took a deep breath. “Look, if I come in here with you can that be the end?”
He turned around and Marcie gently touched a finger to his lips as the woman returned to the doorway, her head bowed, as though she were ashamed of listening.
“Please, Miss Marcie, Mister…?”
“Bill,” he said. “Bill Wicker.”
The woman inclined her head toward him and went inside. Marcie followed her, and Wicker followed Marcie into a large room glowing with light from the large windows overlooking the street. Wicker nearly went temporarily blind, and then he blinked his vision into submission. Green-tinted water swirled in basins set in front of large adjustable imitation leather chairs. Before he knew it, he had his shoes and socks off. Standing there, in that bright light, he stared at his ill-shaped toes with their odd-angled nails, beneath some of which a whitish-yellow fungus grew as if in a home garden. Ugly feet, but they were his feet, and he had decided to give in to Marcie’s plan and allow these women to care for them. Within moments he was sitting back in one of those large chairs, his toes buffeted about in a basin of warm churning greenish water.
Marcie sat next to him but had the decency to ignore him, chattering instead with the woman in charge of her feet.
“Ah,” was all Wicker said for a good 20 minutes, while his bosomy woman bid him raise his feet and lower, raise his feet and lower, so that she could clip—ay! now and then a little nip from her clipper pierced the solitude of his condition--his toe-nails and lave his soles and heels and shins and calves with various oils and lotions, hot and cold. She and the other women who worked here spoke to each other in a tonal tongue, voices rising and falling in songlike fashion. Now and then he glanced at the woman bent before him, but she gave nothing back to his eye, continuing to work on his feet, treating him like a patient, or a king, with warped toes and fungus-laden nails.
How many hundreds if not thousands of years had this kind of manicuring endured in Asia? His father had served there in that war. Of all the mysteries in his life this one leaped foremost to mind. What kind of grooming had the women he met there given him? This tenacious clipping? This rough filing? Now that the woman finished with her clipping, things down there felt wonderful, soothing, exhilarating, ah… Look at the way she splashed about with the water and the oils! Stain herself in his service? She didn’t care. She was devoted, she was his, or, at least, his foot’s. The way she worked his calf muscles, the smoothness of her fingers on his soles. Ah… This is the kind of care women gave you, if you paid for it. He might even have blanked out during the paradise of it all, because when he looked over at Marcie she had a restful smile on her face as she looked back at him.
“Um,” he said. “I could stay here, I could…live here. Just bring me food, and so forth.”
“And so forth?”
“Christ, you know. Fill in the blanks.”
Marcie’s chest rose as she took in a breath to speak.
“Shhh…” he said, reaching over to touch her hand. “Don’t ruin this.”
“And you’re not?”
He might have said something just then but someone tapped at his foot, and he glanced down as his toe-woman motioned for him to raise his leg so that she could work on his other calf. This went on for a while, and then back to the other foot, and he honestly wished that he had more feet and legs for her to work on, all this was restful and stimulating at the same time. Ah—again, again, the ahs—if life were only this! He closed his eyes and imagined himself one of those kings—or a prince at least—of Thailand, with all of these luxuries and services at his beck and call. He would be a kind and good ruler, he would be benevolent, he would try not to hurt anyone in his entourage, especially any of the women. Ah, a chance to start over, to become a better man. He opened his eyes. The light coming through the windows seemed to have softened ever so slightly as the noon hour had worn on. Ah…
And then, as in all good and wonderful sensual matters, eating, massage, hoops, kissing, boozing, swimming, fucking, it was over.
He sat there, in the bliss of it all, slumped back in his chair, staring wistfully at his feet. Physically, his toes had changed, trim now, where before they were ragged and jagged, odd and almost alien to him. So had he changed? Take a look!
“You like?” the woman said.
“Yes, yes,” he said, finding himself speaking pidgin. “I like, I like.”
She bowed her head toward him, and he imagined how his father must have felt when he was his age, still young enough not to have been defeated, and yet old enough to anticipate the end of such physical pleasures. It was a pathetic thing, perhaps even verging on the tragic, that he had not paid much attention to his father’s war stories when he had had a chance to ask questions about them. It was something, he figured, like what he might have felt if he had grown up listening to this tonal talking—near-singing it was to him—and had not chosen to learn it.
As he pulled on his socks and tied his sneakers, he felt a completely unwarranted surge of pride. From now on I will be different, he told himself. I may stumble, but I will pick myself up and surge forward, maybe even on my fucking toes! Gallant figure that he was, he paid for both of their pedicures while the women called out in their bird-language to new customers entering the salon.
“So that’s it?” he said as he and Marcie walked down the stairs to the street.
“I think you liked it, didn’t you?”
“I did,” he said. “And now I know a little more about your secret life.”
“It’s not at all secret,” Marcie said. “You can know as much about my life as you like. I’d like you to know it. I want you to know it.”
“Well,” he said, quiet until they reached the ground level, “a man can only know so much.”
“Is that right?”
There was something in her voice he couldn’t identify, except that he knew he didn’t like it.
He might have said more, but just then a tall young almond-skinned woman in a short skirt and sandals came in through the street door. She could have been the daughter of the woman who had cared for Wicker’s feet, she could have been another customer. Wicker stared at her beautiful calves and ankles and toes as he made way for her to climb past them.
“Damn!” he said as he and Marcie stepped out onto the sidewalk.
“What?” Marcie stopped and folded her arms across her chest, quite a sight herself, a storm in the making.
“My toes feel so good!”
He gave her a big big smile, which turned out to be exactly the wrong thing—who knew why?—to do.
“Ah, fuck you, Wicker,” she said. “You know, I saw you looking at that girl just now, and I saw you looking at Nan when we first came in. You like your toes? Fuck your toes, fuck every one of your ten fucking toes, fuck them! I hope they turn black and drop off. I hope you never walk again!”
“Wow,” Wicker said, “what did I do to piss you off? I did everything you wanted.”
“You don’t know what I want,” she said, quietly, as though they were standing in the middle of a crowd of strangers, except that no one else was anywhere near them.
“Do you know?” he said. He clenched his fists, really, suddenly, angry.
She turned and began walking away from the shop. A car came around the corner but she kept on going.
“Hey, you’ll get killed,” he called after her.
“Not unless you kill me,” she called back.
“Bye-bye, Miss Marcie, Mister Bill! Hope you like toes!”
Nan, the nail woman called to them from the upper windows of the building.
Marcie paid no attention. Wicker looked up.
“What did I do to deserve this?” he said. But the Asian woman couldn’t hear him.
So he walked away, delicately, as it happened, because he suddenly felt a pain in his toes, in the big toe of his right foot, to be specific. Had the woman cut him with her clipper? He stopped a moment, hoping to ease the pain. Marcie walked on. She didn’t even look back. Was this how things would end? Ridiculous! With him standing there alone, his toe aching, possibly bleeding, people moving along the avenue oblivious to his pain? And then the face of his father came up between him and the people on the street, the cars, the traffic light. Is that what this is all about? His toes, his life, lying to Marcie, his father—unspeakable Vietnam? Now he found it difficult to breath, and he nearly forgot about his toes. His father opened his mouth as if to tell him something—how long since he had heard that voice? Could it speak from beyond the grave? Well, what the hell did he think was happening now, anyway? Did his father congratulate him on having become so well-groomed? Did his father say how proud he was of the man he had become? You tell us, Bill. Take a deep breath and tell us what happens next. What in this whole wide world happens next?
Next story: Mexican Honeymoon by Terese Svoboda
Photo courtesy of University Relations, George Mason University
Alan Cheuse is the author, among other books, of the novels The Light Possessed, and the award-winning To Catch the Lightning. A collection of his travel writing, A Trance After Breakfast, was published in 2009. His new novel, Song of Slaves in the Desert, will appear this spring.