By Jen Knox
I was terrified of blood, and breaking skin was a real possibility. Andrea Henderson looked down on me through her blue-tinted hexagon glasses, so I looked straight ahead. Her sharply creased pants were rolled up to her knee. I faced veiny shins, almost translucent, like the skin on the kielbasa my grandmother would boil at Christmastime. Even as a child, I could never stomach the pale sausage. I lifted one of Andrea Henderson’s legs onto the towel in my lap and furiously shaved away the softened curdles of dead skin.
“Do whatever it takes. I have twenty minutes before I need to be out that door. I’m receiving an award, so I can’t just blend into the background tonight,” she said.
I started to wonder how I could get the polish to dry in time. Her nails were pale yellow, like the linoleum in her kitchen, and thick. They’d split, I knew it, and I’d need extra time for filing. Onychoschizia was the nail disease I’d never forget because it was the disease that I confused with onychatrophia on my final nail tech exam, which cost me the top score. The first clue that I was in the wrong profession.
After a quick rinse, I toweled each toe, trying to ignore the urge to look up. To sit low, almost on the ground, was necessary. I was continuing my education, taking business classes that promised to change the way I’d see the world, be seen to the world. I had a naïve and grand vision of accruing $17,000 in my bank account. I don’t know where that number came from, but I knew once I had it, I could buy a motorcycle and never again have to sit with a callus grater at the feet of a fierce woman who never thought to ask my name. As it was, I would work many years beyond this night before my student loan debt would reduce to the inverse of the number that had become my lighthouse.
My fingers ached. I had to put my body weight into it. But I got Andrea Henderson’s nails clipped.
“Oval or square?” I asked.
“I’m an artist,” she said. “Square.”
Of course. The more difficult shape. The shape that doesn’t show up in nature. I rounded the edges carefully on her right foot and evened out the top line like the pro I was. On the left foot, however, something caught my eye, and I became nervous. On the fireplace behind her were a series of small blue birds that I figured had been purchased at a craft store, but one of them stared at me as though it could see through me. As though it was telling me I could do better in this life.
“How?” I asked, and Andrea Henderson looked down her blue glasses at me again. I looked straight ahead.
“How what?” she asked.
“I was thinking out loud. Talking to your bird.”
“Thank you. I did them myself. The trickiest part is not getting the wings wet as you split the back body open. It’s all very meticulous with birds. I made them for a wedding, and I got to keep those five. They were the rejects, but they were, quite honestly, my favorites. They have character, unlike the bridegroom. I confide in them myself,” she said.
“Taxidermy?” I asked.
“I’m an artist. Of course. Are you done yet?”
I looked down at her foot, file in hand, and saw that the skin on this big toe was closer to the nail. I had to pull it back to do my work, edge the file at a thirty-degree angle. A woman who could peel the skin off bluebirds and bring them back to static confidants was an alchemist, and here I was with four minutes left before I had to get the polish on. There was no way it would dry faster, not even if I used the nail school trick of spraying olive oil on the feet.
I began to square off the left big toe and miscalculated. A clumsy step that resulted in the opening of skin. A gush of bright blood. I hung my head as I pressed cotton to skin and held, looking up to the bird.
Another sign. It said, “This isn’t for you.”
But the taxidermist who was an artist forgave me, and the olive oil spray impressed her, so she tipped me almost fifty dollars, making the job just short of a hundred total. As I packed up my things, watching her quickly grab a dress she’d change into in the car, she told me to say goodbye. So I did, and she said no, not to me.
So I walked toward the birds, this time making eye contact with more than one of them, and I told each goodbye and thank you. I was unsure what I was thanking them for, but I thanked them wholeheartedly, and they told me that my next job would not be right either, but I was headed in the right direction.
I thanked Andrea Henderson, who nodded and rushed toward the door, swiftly plucking one of the birds from the mantel and slipping the odd tip into my palm, getting me no closer to my $17,000 goal. “Use a feather duster to keep him clean,” she told me. “And find a new job.”