REVIEW AMERICANA

 

Spring 2006

Volume 1, Issue 1

http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/spring_2006/collins.htm




MELISSA GOSLIN COLLINS

 

Betty Lou and the Revolutionary Nail Salon

 

Betty Lou 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 said.

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 wall.

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 tub and reached for the Ladies Home Journal sitting on the tray beside her.

“Too hot?” Mai asked splashing water onto Betty Lou’s foot.

“Just fine.”

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, the woman introduced herself as Marcia Habenknocker, mother of three and licensed real estate agent.

“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 with 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 Card.

“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 the agreement.

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 skill 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 positivity.”

“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 an impromptu grocery 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 down onto 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. After 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 her book.

“In fifteen minutes. You can wait?” Mai asked. “I finish up other customer.”

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 women were flipping pages of the latest romance, Betty Lou furiously ripped through the pages trying to decode every word she could hear. Sung…guns, __n d__c…ammunition, 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 were shaking.

“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 were mobile.

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 jumble. She 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 Rose.

It’s like Rosie the Riveter, she thought. But this time it’s Mai the Manicurist.

“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 up the 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 didn’t 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 salon.”

“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 John throughout the 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 asked.

“Worse.” Betty Lou said. With that she pinned an American flag to Bradley’s 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 stars.

“Very Betsy Ross meets Evel Knievel,” the woman commented.

“It’s perfect,” Betty Lou said, throwing her debit card onto the counter.

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 the checkout, 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 Lou said.

“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 dining room table, Betty Lou felt equal to the task. First, she would get the Donaldsons and the McAfees involved, then the whole neighborhood. It was only a matter of time before this thing snowballed into a special report to interrupt regularly scheduled programming. She ripped open package after package of beans, slipped tissue off 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 finger-painted Uncle Sam-borines. She made paper badges and attached safety pins from her sewing kit to make them ready-to-wear. She splatter-painted patriotic patterns onto t-shirts and even a pair of white socks from the laundry.

Covering every noisemaker, each sign, badge, and t-shirt was Betty Lou’s 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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