Betty Lou and the Revolutionary Nail Salon
Bimbledon was having a bad day, but nothing Mai, the little Vietnamese
girl at the nail salon, couldn’t fix. A quick scratch, scratch,
scratch of Mai’s pumice and Betty Lou’s worries, along
with the extraordinarily large calluses on her left heel, would
dissolve. On her way to the nail shop, Betty Lou mulled over the
conversation she’d had at lunch with her husband, Bradley.
“Maybe you should find a summer hobby, Betty Lou,” Bradley
She had never heard of such a thing.
“My perspective is a little off for painting and pottery is so messy.
My handwriting is too curly for calligraphy…” After
a long pause she added, “I do like children.”
“That’s not much of a hobby,” Bradley pointed out.
Betty Lou was a career woman. She taught kindergarten at Wallaby
Elementary where she had been named Teacher of the Year for five
out of her fifteen years of service. This afternoon, over two Super
Dilly platters and an extra large heap of coconut cream pie, Bradley
had told Betty Lou that he thought her job was interfering with
her ability to relate to adults.
“Don’t get me wrong, pumpkin. I love your homemade cards,
but I think it might be a little, well, a little odd for a woman
your age to be playing with so much construction paper,” Bradley
said. Betty Lou’s blank stare hovered over her fried catfish.
“And while the watercolor handprint on the front was a nice touch,” Bradley
hesitated, looking for a way to get his point across without being
too harsh. “Your handprint’s just a tad larger than
people are used to seeing on the front of homemade cards.”
Bradley worked as a supervisor for Smitty Belt, the local conveyor
factory. They arranged specialty conveyor belts for all types of
industries, from food service to lawn equipment to children’s
toys. And their own conveyor belts were flawlessly tailored for
making conveyor belts. The plant was truly a sight to behold and
Bradley was usually in charge of touring potential clients. He
feared people would not take him seriously with tiny snowmen, turkeys
and leprechauns pinned to his lapel so he unstuck the seasonal
reminders as soon as Betty Lou was out of sight. So as not to hurt
her feelings, he re-pinned them every afternoon about two blocks
from their house.
Betty had left their lunch at the cafeteria in a rush. She promised
Bradley that she would consider picking up a hobby while she was
off for the summer and assured him that she was just late for her
monthly nail appointment and not leaving in a huff.
“You pick color now,” Mai said pointing
to the carousel of polishes on top of the front desk. Betty Lou
looked for something
neutral but assertive, simple but not wishy-washy. She decided
on Chicago Champagne Toast and followed Mai into the back room
filled with oversized vibrating chairs and footbaths.
“You sit here,” Mai said gesturing to the first chair by the far
Betty Lou vaulted herself into the chair that would serve as her throne for
the next hour. She carefully propped her heels on either edge of the empty
reached for the Ladies Home Journal sitting on the tray beside her.
“Too hot?” Mai asked splashing water onto Betty Lou’s foot.
Once the tub was full, Mai cut on the whirlpool effect and guided Betty Lou’s
feet into the water. Slowly, Betty Lou loosened her grip on the magazine and
it slid back onto the table tray. She was no longer thinking about Bradley. She
wasn’t thinking about age appropriate activities. She wasn’t thinking
at all. Mai would tap a foot and it would react. Into the tub, out of the tub.
It was a graceful ballet led by Mai. This is my favorite part, Betty Lou thought
as Mai squirted a stream of cold lotion down the length of her calf and foot.
Just then, before Mai could massage the lotion in, the girl working the station
next to Mai’s began to talk. She was talking loudly and incomprehensibly.
Mai answered back, even louder and more unintelligibly. They were speaking Vietnamese
and Betty Lou found all of the “dings” and “dows” enormously
unsettling. She wondered what the girls were talking about. Were they making
plans to go see a movie next weekend? Maybe organizing a trip to the beach or
discussing a need to reorder more nail polish remover?
The woman in the chair next to Betty Lou looked bothered and disoriented.
She had obviously been jarred from her nap by the hard sounds of their talking.
Half an hour later, as the two of them sat side by side at the drying table,
introduced herself as Marcia Habenknocker, mother of three and licensed real
“Do you think they were talking about us?” Marcia asked with a devilish
look in her eye. Betty Lou jumped a little, careful not to disrupt her fingernails
incubating under the lamp.
“You don’t really think they would…I mean, with us right there?”
“Why else would they use the mother tongue?” Marcia asked as she
slithered into her flip-flops and dropped Betty Lou a business card. Just
in case you and the mister ever decide to hop on the market.
Betty Lou added a stop to the top of her list. Books-O-Plenty. She was sure
that the how-to of her new hobby would be found on their shelves. She consciously
shrugged off the comments of Bradley and Marcia so as not to damage her self-esteem.
She repeated to herself over and over the words that Dr. Phil had left her
after his last show, “This is not about them,” she said. “It
is about me.”
As Betty Lou rounded the corner to the modern languages aisle, she repeated
one last time, “This is all about me.” At that moment Betty Lou came
face to face with Vietnamese for Dummies, perched on the shelf and beckoning
to her. Buy me, Betty Lou. I want to be your hobby. At twenty percent off with
cassettes included, it was clearly a sign.
She saw a list of Vietnamese girls’ names in the index and flipped past
the A’s, B’s, C’s…Mai. Her name meant cherry blossom.
Betty Lou remembered flipping through a book of popular baby names and finding
that her own name meant God’s famous warrior, and now she was wishing she
could be a flower, something dainty, something more feminine like the tiny cherry
blossom that made Betty Lou’s feet presentable in summer sandals.
“Learning a new language is supposed to curb your chances of Alzheimer’s,” the
girl at the front desk said as she swiped Betty Lou’s Super Saver Reader’s
“I’m just doing it for a summer hobby.”
She popped the tape into her car stereo and headed off to run the rest of her
errands. A man’s voice came over the speakers to tell Betty Lou that pronunciation
was important and she would need to repeat everything he said. She would need
to get comfortable with making new sounds. Her palette would be challenged, her
tongue put to the test. In between the grocery store, the dry cleaners, the corner
deli and the gas station, Betty Lou made more sounds than she ever thought possible,
and by the time she arrived home that evening she could say to Bradley, “I
greet you, Mister,” in Vietnamese. It was as simple as Chaøo oâng.
Bradley was pleased to see his wife taking up a new hobby. So pleased indeed
that he kept his reservations about the particular language she had chosen
to himself. But in the back of his mind, Bradley couldn’t help but wonder
why Betty Lou hadn’t chosen something more reasonable like Spanish or French.
Betty Lou listened to her tapes religiously for the next two weeks. She moved
Bradley’s portable stereo with dual cassettes inside from the garage and
would sound out words while she chopped celery, scrubbed the bathtub, and put
on load after load of whites. She could tell that she was getting better and
her Vietnamese vocabulary was expanding exponentially. She looked at her fingernails
and toes every morning, hoping one would be chipped or grown out so that she
could justify another trip to L.A. Nails. When she had started going for regular
manicures two years before, she and Bradley had squeezed it into their budget
for once a month. Barring any special occasions – weddings, parent’s
night, the annual Smitty Belt Christmas Party – Betty Lou had stuck to
One Tuesday, after Betty Lou had been listening to the tapes every day but
Sundays for three weeks, she decided to cook fish for dinner. She was not
particularly in the mood for fish that night, but wanted desperately to try
out her new
on Duong, the Vietnamese manager of the seafood section at her grocers.
“Duong,” Betty Lou said as she flipped through the pages of her book, “means
“Shrimp today Miss Betty?” Duong asked from between the two bulky
metal scales on top of the counter that separated he and Betty Lou.
“Fish. I’ll have two salmon steaks, please.”
Just as he was plopping the pinkish chunks onto the scale Betty Lou spoke
out uncontrollably. She couldn’t keep her secret any longer.
“So Duong, maáy giôØ anh ñi Saøigoøn?”
“I not go to Saigon, Miss Betty. But if I do I suppose I am go around noon,” Duong
said, handing Betty Lou two salmon steaks wrapped in butcher paper and sealed
with a price tag.
Betty Lou smiled triumphantly and went home to confirm next week’s nail
appointment. A girl named Chi answered the phone, “Okay Miss Betty. Mai
see you three o’clock next Tuesday.”
“Chi…Chi…ah, there it is. Chi means twig.”
“Do you have anything in say, cherry blossom?” Betty Lou asked, knowingly
winking at Mai.
“Just what we have up there,” Mai responded.
Betty Lou wanted to wait until the perfect time to let Mai in on her little
secret, but the temptation was almost too much. She had to wait, though.
She had to prove
Marcia’s theory wrong. She needed to know that Mai, the girl that Betty
Lou made a special origami Christmas card for every year, was not talking about
her right in front of her face.
She sat in her chair with pen and paper, patiently waiting for someone
to speak. She pretended that the notepad and Bic Roller were there for
list, but really Betty Lou wanted to write down any words that she didn’t
understand so that she could look them up when she got home. Finally, one of
the girls started to talk. It was harder than Betty Lou anticipated to pick out
words that she understood. Then again, most of the conversations on her tapes
started with polite introductions and the girls she was listening to now had
obviously already met.
Xem, okay that means feet. I know that one. And màu m_, wait that means
fat. Is she calling that woman’s feet fat? As Betty Lou glanced to the
woman across from her she could not help but notice how unnaturally large her
feet were against her otherwise delicate frame. Betty Lou smiled at Mai as if
to say I agree. Her feet are indeed quite chubby. Mai returned Betty Lou’s
smile and spoke directly at her in Vietnamese. She did not understand the words
that came out of Mai’s mouth, but wrote them down, saying, “Oh, I
almost forgot laundry detergent,” as she wrote. She wasn’t ready
to give it away just yet.
When she arrived home, Betty Lou threw open her book and started to flip
through the pages with no regard for her freshly dried nails. A chip
would just mean
another trip to the salon, another chance to indulge in Vietnamese gossip!
She found the three words she was able to catch when Mai was speaking
in her direction.
She scribbled down the English counterparts to __it_, tr_, and vòng on
a bright pink Post-It. Her excitement was too much to let the words register
as she mechanically wrote each one and then glanced down to see them together,
to complete the thought.
As Betty Lou read the words out loud, her fingers went numb and she dropped
the Post-It onto the floor. She dropped lower into her chair and looked
the three words that she was sure had to be a mistake.
You pay revolution.
Betty Lou sprung into action. She quickly jammed her thumbnail into the
edge of her kitchen table, bunching up the nail polish into a gooey mound.
wrapping Vietnamese for Dummies in the brown paper disguise of a grocery
bag, she was
off to the salon.
“Could you just repaint this one?” she asked, nervously handling
“In fifteen minutes. You can wait?” Mai asked. “I finish up
Betty Lou was happy to wait. She could hear conversations all across
the salon from her station in the waiting area. As the other waiting
pages of the latest romance, Betty Lou furiously ripped through the pages
trying to decode every word she could hear. Sung…guns, __n
s_ t_n công…attack.
It was too much for her to wrap her brain around.
"I ready now,” Mai said.
They sat down at a table near the front window and Mai began wiping the
color off of Betty Lou’s sabotaged thumb.
“You nervous about something?” Mai asked. Betty Lou’s hands
“I just have bad nerves,” she answered.
As she looked around the salon, Betty Lou came to a horrifying realization.
Everything in that salon was on wheels. At a moment’s notice, as soon as the revolution
began, they could clear out in ten seconds flat. All of the chairs were on wheels.
The tiny carts that held bottle after bottle of anti-fungal solution and cuticle
remover – on wheels. Even the enormous shaking chairs with detachable footbaths
The intense colors from the polish display made Betty Lou dizzy. She
stared at them as they all seemed to swirl together in a psychedelic
looked away but all she could see were the colors. She noticed that the
woman at the
table next to her was having her nails painted a blindingly bright Agent
Orange. On the other side, Chi had talked her client into a surrendering
shade of Tokyo
It’s like Rosie the Riveter, she thought. But this
time it’s Mai
“I think I should start coming once a week,” Betty Lou said as she
handed Mai a small tip for the complementary polish change. She needed to keep
front if she was going to do something about all of this, even if it
meant funding a little more revolution than she cared to think about.
Betty Lou wondered if she should talk to someone in the government. This
seem like a case for the local police. No, this was better suited for the FBI
or the CIA. She wasn’t sure how to get in touch with them so she went about
the business of her daily errands, all the while listening to her tapes and devising
a plan. She would learn the language even better to figure out all of the details
of their scheme.
Once again she added Books-O-Plenty to her list.
As she was paying for her six new books and five sets of cassette tapes
with her credit card, Betty Lou saw Marcia’s card. She needed to call Marcia
and tell her what she had uncovered. They were not just gossiping about clients,
they were backing a revolution.
The answering machine picked up. Hi, you’ve
reached the Habenknockers. We’re not in right now so please
leave a message after the tone. Betty Lou only wanted to tell
Marcia to call her back, but the beep in
her ear unleashed
a chain reaction of information. She told her about the tapes, about
the words she had heard and how she had seen them on the Post-It. She
told Marcia about
the guns and the colors and about how everything in that damn place was
on wheels. When the message machine finally cut her off in the middle
of telling Marcia
about the books she had just bought and how she was going to overthrow
their whole plan, Betty Lou fell asleep on the couch.
“Pumpkin,” Bradley gently shook Betty Lou from her nap. “Bob
Habenknocker called. Something about a revolution down at the nail
“Already?” Betty Lou sprung from the couch.
“No. That’s just the thing. He said for you not to get worked up
over this. There’s no revolution because he would know. He’s government.”
A cover-up call from the feds meant this thing was bigger than Betty
Lou had dared to imagine. She went to the stereo and blared Elton
275 square feet of their living room. Then, camouflaged by “Tiny Dancer,” Betty
Lou whispered in Bradley’s ear. She told him that they couldn’t rely
on anyone, that this was top-secret stuff, that the government must be involved.
If there was one thing she could trust, Betty Lou said, it was her own ears.
Bradley nodded. He knew how good his wife was at overhearing conversations in
restaurants and shopping malls. She would say things like, “Don’t
look now, but that man five tables back is planning to leave his wife. Oh, and
for his secretary of all things. How dreadful!” At first Bradley
figured Betty Lou for a lip reader until one night he held a washcloth
up to his face
and told Betty Lou from the hallway that he thought she should cook more
dishes with ground beef. The next four nights they had Hamburger Helper.
“Is this like one of those alien things out in New Mexico?” Bradley
“Worse.” Betty Lou said. With that she pinned an American flag to
lapel, handed over his bologna lunch and set about her business of
stifling the revolution.
With a rapidly penned “to do” list in hand, Betty Lou started for
her car. Two steps out of her house, Betty Lou Bimbledon got a haunting chill
up her spine as she looked out on the wide suburban expanse in front of her.
She felt exposed and defenseless, vulnerable like a lobster without his shell.
She dug in her purse for a Bic and scribbled Mike’s Motorcycle
World on top of her list.
“I need a helmet,” Betty Lou said.
The leathery blonde saleswoman pulled out a tape measure and started
deciphering the circumference of Betty Lou’s head. When she was
finished, Betty Lou pointed to a red helmet with white stripes and blue
“Very Betsy Ross meets Evel Knievel,” the woman commented.
“It’s perfect,” Betty Lou said, throwing her debit card onto
Next, she needed supplies. Betty Lou tightened the strap beneath
her chin and headed for the school aisle at Saver’s Mart. She filled her basket with
dry beans of every shape and size, paper plates, staples, toilet tissue, three
packs of white crew neck t-shirts, rubber bands, a dozen staked “for sale” signs,
hot glue sticks and all of the red, white and blue finger-paint and construction
paper she could find. She walked past old women with bags of frozen chicken
breasts and cat litter and she felt proud. In the midst of her dash toward
Betty Lou stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of the seafood counter.
“Anh ñaõ ñi Vònh Haï Long laàn naøo?”
“No, Miss Betty. I never go Ha Long Bay.” Duong said.
“Can we count on you, Duong?” she asked.
“Fish always good here,” Duong said. “No one ever get sick.”
“You know, to translate. There won’t be many of us,” Betty
“Okay, Miss Betty. You can count me.”
“Chúc may m_n, Duong.”
“Good luck at you too, Miss Betty.”
Betty Lou shoved off toward her house, frantically repeating all of the helmet-muffled
words on her advanced tape. It was a huge responsibility to squelch
a rebellion, but as she unloaded her purchases onto the workspace of her
table, Betty Lou felt equal to the task. First, she would get the Donaldsons
the McAfees involved, then the whole neighborhood. It was only a matter
before this thing snowballed into a special report to interrupt regularly
scheduled programming. She ripped open package after package of beans,
of rolls, and covered signs in patriotic paint. She filled tissue
rolls with favas and closed the ends with construction paper circles and rubber
bands. She sandwiched black beans between stapled paper plates to make
Sam-borines. She made paper badges and attached safety pins from
kit to make them ready-to-wear. She splatter-painted patriotic patterns
and even a pair of white socks from the laundry.
Covering every noisemaker, each sign, badge, and t-shirt was Betty
bi-lingual slogan – the words that were sure to inspire her fellow
citizens and scare the emery board wielding enemy into hiding. They were
the words that
would secure her place in American history and win her a sixth plaque
in the Wallaby Elementary Teacher of the Year Hall of Fame.
Chuùng toâi không tr_ vòng.
We no pay revolution.
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