Friday, December 28, 2012

Don't Forget to Add Bubbles

I published this "Wish for the New Year" on my blog last year at the end of December, but I wanted to share it again now. The wish remains the same.

You have nothing to worry about, you are doing everything right, you will live a long and healthy life surrounded by those you love who will also be healthy and everyone will be happy and the earth will thrive and hunger and despair will be erased from the planet and the sun will shine but not so brightly that anyone’s skin will be hurt and the animals will be left to flourish in just the right numbers for their joy and survival and the trees will be free of blight and will sway serenely in the gentle breezes and winters will be mild and so will summers and heads of governments will sit around in a circle and tell jokes and eat knishes and dumplings and promise to respect and cherish the people of their own countries as well as all other countries and children will grow up secure and delighted in themselves and when offered a fortune cookie they will break it open and pop both halves into their mouths and enjoy the sweetness and the crunchiness and then they’ll laugh at the messages they have received like “Hello, Sweet Pumpkin,” and “Give Your Friend a Big Hug,” and “Have Fun in the Tub Tonight...Don’t Forget to Add Bubbles.” 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Eat Your Heart Out, Mister

My favorite cousin, stop schmoozing already, you’re not running for Miss Congeniality, sit your ass down next to me. So I’ll move Uncle Maury’s corned beef, how hard is that? Don’t eat that chopped liver, it’s dry. Did I say it wasn’t good? It’s good, it’s good. Aunt Florence made it, how could it not be good? All I’m saying is a little chicken fat never hurt nobody. 
So this is a nice idea, right? A do-it-yourself-in-the-living-room engagement party. I should have been so smart for my Miranda's bat mitzvah, we wouldn’t have gone into debt for three years. But she wanted a Hawaiian luau, so I made her a luau. In those days I wasn’t yet fluent in the word NO.
Show me your nails already, you know I always ask you this. Tsch, tsch, tsch. I’m disappointed in you. So go for a manicure once in a while, have some pride. Look at my hands, are they beautiful or what? This doesn’t just happen, kiddo, I go to a professional every Friday afternoon like clockwork. No, they’re not real, real nails don’t grow like this, for this you have to pay through the nose. 
Between you, me and the mini-knishes, I could take it or leave it. I only do it to make Barry crazy. He hates the way my nails look. He tells me it’s vulgar, three shades of red and fake diamonds on the tips. “A mother of four doesn’t need all this,” he says. I tell him “Eat your heart out, Mister.”
Don’t look at me like that. You are. I know what you’re thinking, don’t think it. Don’t look at me.
Did you see Aunt Jersey? She walked in, she had a shower cap on her head. Did I say a rain hat? No, I said a shower cap. As in: shower cap. That’s how she accessorizes. 

But we should be kind, she’s still in mourning for Phyllis. You didn’t hear about Phyllis? Your mother didn’t tell you? You see what happens when you insist on living upstate like that, you miss out on all the big news. 

I thought that bird would live forever. She had a little cold, but who knew it was serious. Phnuhh, phnuhh, phnuhh — that’s how she sneezed. Nothing is more pathetic than a parakeet with a head cold. 

So before you leave, you’ll say something nice to Aunt Jersey? Say how sorry you are. Tell her you'll miss your little feathered cousin. What, I have to tell you what to say? You’re supposed to be the writer.
But Aunt Essie looks good, doesn’t she? In those shoes you can’t see her bunions. She’s like a real person now that she moved to Manhattan. What’s it been, 30 years she wanted to move? I hear she’s still paying rent on that dump in the Bronx. Believe it. Minnie told Judith and Judith told me, she never gave up the lease. Essie says she needs the storage space, her new apartment doesn’t have closets. Can’t you see it? In the spring she’ll pack up her winter clothes and schlep them up to Fordham Road on the D train. 

Every family has one like this. We’re so lucky, we have two. Oh, well if you count Nina with her 7,000 stuffed animals, then we have three.
Did I tell you, I’m considering early retirement. Next year, when I turn 60. Of  course they don’t encourage it, my supervisor will have two coronaries. Ask me if I care. No, of course I don't care. You had to ask? Not everyone has to know this, but Atlantic City has been very good to me. 

I still go, of course I go, with the girls from my building, every Wednesday night. It’s one of the few pleasures in life. Gambling and manicures. That's it. Sometime when you’re in the city for more than two minutes, you should come with us. First we hit the all-you-can-eat sushi buffet. Un-be-freaking-lievable. They lose money the second we walk in the door. 

Seriously, I’m very well set-up. Barry doesn’t know the half of it. I have my own bank account. If I wanted, I could walk out on him tomorrow, I could get a nice apartment on the Upper East Side, all the way over by the water, it’s quiet there. Lots of hospitals. They’ve got doctors and nurses coming and going all hours, I’d be perfectly safe. 
Barry still has his tuches buried in Brooklyn. I say enough already, I’ve paid my dues and then some. This is how I figure: a one-bedroom so the kids won’t want to stay with me, and a nice kitchen, not a galley, I want plenty of cabinets. 

Then I’ll start my own catering business. I know I’m a good cook, that’s what I’m telling you. My mother left me with two things: her acne and her recipe box. For the recipes, I’m thankful every day. When I make a chopped liver you don't have to wash it down with seltzer. 

Listen what I’m saying: if I moved out tonight, Barry wouldn’t notice I was gone. Between the baseball and the basketball and the football and all the other balls, what does he need a wife for? He’s got his 99 cable channels, his remote control, his 3-position recliner chair — the man is happier than a kosher pig in a shithole. You never heard that expression? It's famous. Or else I made it up. I can't remember.
Don’t say anything, Gaily's coming. “Hello Gaily, let me see your ring. This is gorgeous. What a gorgeous rock. You must be very happy. Show Cousin Zinnie your hand. See, she likes it too. Gaily, your mother’s looking for you, she wants you to help with the crudités. Bye-bye sweetie; bye-bye.”

You see that? That’s not a rock, it’s a pebble. Pathetic. I give them six months. Where did you hear he’s a nice boy, he’s not a nice boy, 
it's his brother who's the nice boy. But did the brother propose? No, he did not. Poor Gaily. I see right through this one. He’s only interested in her for one thing. Not that. It’s because she’s going to be a teacher. He’s already thinking how to spend her pension check. Trust me. Look at him over there, like a pasha, he hasn’t lifted a finger all afternoon. 
I would never let my Miranda marry a boy like that. Better she should be an old maid all her life. No offense. She brings home any losers, I’m putting my foot down so fast she won’t know what stepped on her.
Speaking of which, I tried on a pair of those shoes, the ones you recommended, they’re not for me. Because they’re ugly, that’s why. I don’t care they’re comfortable; they look like crap. My mother had bad arches all her life, she managed. It’s part of being a woman, you wear shoes that hurt your feet. 
So what, you don’t. You’re not a real woman. No no no no no no no. I didn’t meant it like that. You know me, I’m not prejudiced, no matter what your lifestyle, I’m used to it already. All I’m saying, until you get married — to a man — and you have children, no matter how old you are, in my book, you're not a woman, you’re still a girl. Little Peter Pansy, you will never grow up. 

But don't quote me to your mother. Never in the history of this planet has there been a woman like your mother when it comes to protecting you. I'm telling you. No, I'm telling you. This is the truth from heaven above. 
Look, Uncle Tiny’s gonna start in with the singing now. That kind of schmaltz we can do without. Come with me, we'll go out and get some air. I won’t blow smoke in your face. I won’t. I promise, I won't. 

I know how to behave, what do you think? Come on, let’s go while the going’s still good. In another second he'll be weepy from his own singing. It could gag you, this kind of emotional behavior.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

small poems about the moon

dear moon
I forgot to look at you last night
did you see me?

turning my gaze
from the weeping moon —
saving face

1,000 moons
the longest kiss

full moon
stares a hole through rock —

my face
in the mirror

puffed up with pride
the moon
inventor of tides

here I am —
somewhere between ocean and moon
somewhere between lost and found

unbutton the moon from the sky
wear it on your sleeve
close to your heart

why do you follow me?
I am lost

cresting the mountain
moon hesitates —
no need to rush things
   sometimes eternity
   feels like an eternity

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

small poems about rain

catching spring rain
in my cupped hands —
no reflection in this shallow pond

rain puddle
tipping over
into my own reflection

chalked on the sidewalk
washed away

pouring tea
into my favorite cup —
rain fills a river

rainy morning
don't look at me like that
dear frog

early morning rain
the turtle stays in his shell
so do I

water lilies
a deeper pink
after the rain

crossing the bridge
I didn't recognize you
under your new umbrella

under my umbrella
I choose not to say hello

dreaming about the umbrella
that would not open —
heavy rains last night

sudden rainstorm
holding a red balloon
over my head

in this dark blue bowl
the sweetest plums

shaking rain from her hair
the farmer waters her spinach

downpour —
a basket of cucumbers
unable to run for shelter

laughing so hard
we miss
the thunder

maybe if I stayed in bed
I too would love
this rainy day

just when I give in to it
the rain

purple rain
the iris field
at dawn

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Long and Short of It

I wrote each one of these a number of winters ago.

Snow / No Hummingbirds

Finally, the refrigerator motor shuts off and the loudest sound is one I make myself by circling my thumbs around each other. I don’t realize I’m doing this until I try to identify the sound and, by the process of elimination — since there are no hummingbirds in the apartment, no rustling leaves — I figure it out. 
It’s been snowing all day. The last car went by hours ago and the tire tracks are filled in. Only two people pass, a man and a woman, walking down the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk. I watch from the window: the woman, in a pale trench coat and high leather boots, holds a black umbrella over her head; the man wears a hooded jacket and lumbers beside her. They pass my house, then the fire station’s parking lot, the pretty house with the stained glass windows, the health club, and the abandoned storefront. They don’t appear to be talking to each other but I can’t be sure. 
I go back to my chair, and the novel I don’t yet care about, and realize too late that I should have changed into warmer socks. I am too lazy to get up again. The refrigerator has started to hum again and the fire department’s generator just kicked in.

hour after hour
at the window —
yes, it is still snowing

Queen of Hearts

On our way home from dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant, Blue and I find three playing cards face-down on the sidewalk near our house. Blue turns them over, one by one, as we try to guess what’s on the other side. They are the seven of clubs, three of spades and Queen of Hearts. We didn’t guess a single one right, though we both wanted to say Queen of Hearts but were embarrassed to be that corny. I'm superstitious and don’t want to bring the cards into the house. I hold them by their corners and carry them to the nearby mailbox, leaving them face-down on the rounded top for someone else to discover. By the next day they are gone. But later that week, coming out of a different restaurant, we see another card, the Jack of Clubs, face-up on the street. We step over it.

hurrying past
the fortune-teller’s window
I stumble

For Luck

The scarf she gave me is rather shocking. Orange, red, light blue, dark blue, shades of green. But not a smidgen of brown and the absence of purple is nearly palpable. More to the point: where is the black? Nothing I own, or have ever owned, has been this colorful. It’s alarming. But also, strangely magnetic. 

I wear the scarf when I’m alone in the apartment, waiting for water to boil, or squinting over a book in the fading afternoon light. I don’t have the courage or the humor to wear it in front of anyone else. It wraps twice around my neck, is soft against my cheeks, and when I inhale I’m brought right back to that childhood bedroom at the end of the long, dark hallway. Did I have a baby blanket that felt like this?

for luck —
a red thread
hangs from the crib 

Tipping Over

The bath water is hot and scented with lavender. I bring the latest issue of The New Yorker into the tub with me, along with a plastic yellow duck. Blue’s sister has sent it all the way from Illinois. We’re not sure who it was meant for, there is no note, but since I’m the only one who takes baths I claim it for myself. 

Sliding low into the tub I set the duck to float. It keeps tipping over onto its side, instead. 

It’s a disturbing sight, this capsized yellow chunk of plastic, bobbing around in the pale purple water. I put it on the ledge next to a bottle of shampoo and read an article about Western vs. Eastern concepts of time. Later, Blue will say the duck’s bottom is too small, it has no sense of balance.

After the bath I crawl into bed, burrow beneath the comforter, the flannel sheets warm against my cold skin. I sleep for three hours. It is the middle of the afternoon and I am not sick. I have no excuse at all.

waking from a deep sleep
all is changed —
winter solstice


I am worried about my brain. In the past few days I’ve lost a good pair of leather gloves and my favorite beret. I made scheduling errors, not once, but twice. There are long pauses as I try to retrieve once-familiar words and just this morning I called the cat by my sweetheart’s name.
I’d blame it on exhaustion, but I’ve been on vacation for six days now and have done little more than sleep, read, go to the movies and soak in the tub. Maybe it’s entropy. I used to know what that means but at the moment I can’t remember, so it is either an appropriate or a foolish thing to have written and I’m not sure which.
If anyone described this situation to me I’d be quick to advise: “Don’t worry, your circuits are overloaded, you need to shut down for a while.” Blue offers similar advice to me. She says “It’s like you’re stuck between two radio stations.” That’s exactly how I feel: static-y. Out of sync and out of whack.  
I woke early this morning and for a second, in the rare and welcome stillness, I wasn’t sure where I was. Then I remembered and said, out loud, “Okay.”

than yesterday

Amazons and Battle-Axes

I’ve been thinking about mailmen I used to know. The pudgy one who left his lit cigar on the front step before handing over a dozen or more publishers’ catalogs, acting as though the bookstore smelled bad to him. The tall, unshaven one, carelessly dropping the mail on my desk before heading to the jewelry display case, drawn daily to the silver and bronze labryses, and always with the same comment: “I should buy one of these things for my mother-in-law, she’s a real battle-axe.” The one with the long blond ponytail and the small gold hoop hanging from his left earlobe. The one who wore shorts all winter; the one with the bad back and the chipped front tooth; the forgetful one; the complaining one. The ones who didn’t like to walk through the front door and the few who didn’t want to ever leave. 
The bookstore has been closed for almost 20 years. The labryses are gone. I collect carvings of Kwan Yin now, the goddess of compassion. Today is New Year's Day. All the mailmen are at home.

thoughts of mailmen
and Amazons —
snow falls

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Aunt Willow Goes Green: A Hanukkah Tale (revisited)

I wrote this bit of Family Fiction last year and shared it on this blog around Hanukkah time. Now I'm sharing it again, and I do hope it makes you smile. Love and latkes to all!

The family is becoming increasingly concerned about Aunt Willow, my mother's oldest sister, the one who has adopted an environmental stance more radical than you might expect from a woman who, until recently, proclaimed as her personal motto: "More More More!" 
But now it's "less less less" and she is vigorously pruning — her closets, her cupboards — which is all well and good, but for some reason the concept of anonymous re-giving holds no appeal for Willow. She has turned her back on the Salvation Army Thrift Store, as well as numerous consignment shops in her neighborhood, and has chosen to recycle her old garbage in the direction of her relatives, whether we like it or not. And we don't like it.
It began last year when she sent everyone a tuna can for Hanukkah. The cans were empty — either a plus or a minus, depending on your opinion of tuna fish — and haphazardly adorned. Some were lined with cotton balls, some with felt; some with what appeared to be bits of old socks. You either got a tuna can with used gift-wrapping paper taped around the outside, or one that was entirely undisguised and looked exactly like what it was: albacore or chunk light, packed in water or in oil. Nothing was left to the imagination. 
Aunt Willow enclosed notes, written on the back of used envelopes, instructing us that the tuna cans could now be used to store our tchochkes and what-nots. But in typical Willow fashion she admonished us. "Why do you continue to accumulate tchotchkes?" she demanded, in her large loopy handwriting. "Down with tchotchkes! Go Green!" she added.
We all disposed of the tuna cans immediately. I know this because we have a cousins list-serve and some of us (naming no names) did not actually recycle the cans, but tossed them directly in the trash. (I know, I know: shame on me.) And since none of us are inclined to accumulate tchochkes and what-nots in the first place, Aunt Willow's Hanukkah gift was appreciated by not a single soul.
For my birthday last spring, Willow sent me a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment. It was the very copy she'd read in college, copiously annotated, margin notes on nearly every page. It came as no surprise to discover that Aunt Willow had an opinion about everything. "Raskolnikov!" she scribbled on page two, "get a new hat already! Where are your brains?"
I consulted with my cousin Lilian. She received a book for her birthday as well, a tattered volume of Hamlet. "Zee, it was horrifying," she told me. "The things our aunt wrote, nobody should have to read that. There were curses in 4 different languages, including Danish. She's totally ruined Shakespeare for me." 
Over the course of a year the entire family has been subjected to similar assaults, as Willow ruthlessly clears her bookshelves. Cousin Harry, who's always been a little twitchy, is worried that the Peter Pan she foisted off on him could land him on the "dangerous persons" list with homeland security. He buried the book in his backyard, which is something Harry could do because he lives in Tenafly; anyone else would have thrown it down the incinerator chute in their apartment building and been done with it. Now his sister, Rosalie, who is even twitchier than Harry, is afraid some dog will dig up the book and Harry will be hauled off and never seen again. His fingerprints are all over that Peter Pan.
My own father became apoplectic when he saw Willow's margin notes in her old copy of Portnoy's Complaint. 

"Why didn't he stop reading it?" I asked my mother. "Oh you know how it is," she said, "it was just like watching the Jerry Springer show, you can't stop yourself. He had to read to the very end, even though he hated every second of it."

I'm worried about what this Hanukkah will bring. Mom's already warned me that Aunt Willow's been going through the letters she received, and saved, over the decades, reading each one over and over again. We suspect she will now return them to those senders who are still alive. 

Who wants to be reminded of what you wrote to your aunt from summer camp in 1961? "Made three laniards today. Went swimming. Stepped on a worm."

And knowing Aunt Willow, she won't merely return our letters to us, she'll persecute us. "What do you mean, 'stepped on a worm?' What kind of maniac murderer are you? You're no niece of mine, Zee Zahava, you're a regular Raskolnikov."

I've never dreaded a holiday as much as I'm dreading this one. 
Perhaps I should strike first. I could always send Aunt Willow an empty tube of toothpaste: "For storing your long skinny tchochkes and what-nots," I'd tell her.

But I won't. Why start a war you know you can't win?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Beauty Culture

There was a bit of a screwup at the Extension Center. I signed up for their woodworking class on Thursday mornings, that’s a good time for me. Though now that I’m not working any time is  good for me. I figured, hey, I took shop back in school, I know my awl from my elbow. And Betty wants me out of the house, she says my retirement is killing her. Me too, but in a different way. It’s not like I want to help her fold the laundry or anything, but a man should be useful in some way. 
So I mailed in my registration, I wrote out a check, I did everything like you’re supposed to. But when I showed up on the first day they told me they had to cancel woodworking, not enough people signed up. I was there already, they had my money, I said “What else you got?” And the person they had working there at the front desk, she might be a nice woman, I don’t know otherwise, but to me she seemed like a ding-a-ling, she says to me “Beauty Culture?” Like she’s asking me a question. To which I had no answer. But it turned out she wasn’t really asking, she was telling. Thursday mornings, 10 until noon, The Extension Center offers a class called Beauty Culture. Call me crazy; I signed up.
I wouldn’t want the guys down at the plant to know this, but it’s really not so bad. The first week we learned about our colors. If you asked me I would have said I was blue. My coveralls were navy, 35 years I wore that uniform. That’s almost 9,000 days in all. I added it up once. And on the weekends, when I wasn’t in those coveralls, I'd be in my denims. So when the teacher, her name is Nadine — she won’t let us call her Miss or Mrs. anything — when she did my colors and told me I was a green, it came as a big surprise. "And a little purple here and there won’t kill you, Benny. Don't be afraid of purple."  Like I’d be afraid of a color. 

They’re very strict in Beauty Culture. The next week we all had to show how we incorporated what the teacher taught us. There was this one woman, she walked in and her hair was dyed pink. Even Nadine admitted she didn’t expect us all to go to such an extreme. Thank God. I had on a green sweater. I went out and bought it special, at the K-Mart. Betty almost fainted, she said she never knew me to buy a piece of clothing for myself before. Which I don’t think is entirely true. 
I haven’t told her anything. She still thinks I’m taking woodworking. Beauty Culture isn’t the kind of topic you want to bring up with your wife at this stage in the game. But she liked the sweater. And Nadine said it did wonders for my complexion. A little encouragement goes a long way with me.
I’m learning a lot of new things in this class, things I never heard of before. Did you know you’d be doing your hair a favor if you used a good cream rinse once a week? Not just you, I mean everybody. There’s something in it, some chemicals, or maybe it’s an enzyme, that helps your hair to grow. So while you’re washing it, you’re also adding to its health. Now with my hair, it would be a miracle if a little conditioning did anything for me. But Nadine says it’s better to think positive. “As long as you’ve got a single hair on your head, Benny, you should use a good conditioner every week.”
Anyway, there was a little debate among the ladies about what makes a good conditioner and I think they decided it’s not about money, it’s about texture. I didn’t pay too much attention. I asked the woman sitting next to me, Frannie, what she uses and she wrote it down for me on a little piece of paper. The next time I’m in the K-Mart I’ll pick some up. Can’t hurt. 
Did I mention that all the other students in this class are female? Besides Frannie there's a Suzi, a Toni, Dottie and a Tammy.  

I don't mind being the only man, I’m used to being around women. There's my wife Betty of course, and Marla, my daughter, and I have four sisters, but thank God I don't have to see them more than once or twice a year. Women have their own way of talking. If you don’t try to listen to every word they say you can usually get the general idea and do what they expect of you. That’s my philosophy, if you want to keep the peace. So I’m going to buy the cream rinse and while I’m in the store I might look into something purple, too. Socks, maybe.  

Yesterday Betty asked me when I’m going to bring something home that I made in woodworking. She says it’s been a few weeks already, don’t I have a spice rack for her? I tell her it’s about the process, not the product. That’s something else I learned in Beauty Culture.
This morning, Nadine demonstrated the proper way to give a manicure. So naturally she chose me as the guinea pig. She called me the model, but it’s the same thing. She’s a funny kid but I don’t mind her having her little jokes because let’s face it, it’s all screwy, a guy like me in Beauty Culture with a pack of women. 
So what happened is they all crowded around Nadine and me to get a good look and I held my hands out in front of me on this little tray. Nadine says a good manicurist always offers her client a little something extra, maybe a soak in a dish of warm soapy water or a hand massage. I think that’s a nice touch, a way to ease into things, like in the old days when you’d go to a barber and he'd cover your face in a hot towel. I don’t know if they do that anymore. My barber, he doesn’t do it, he’s all business. But the old way, with a towel, that was nice. 
So Nadine, she takes my right hand between her two hands and she starts rubbing it, very gently, and she says to me “Benny, you got good bone structure, your hand’s nice and solid but it also has some fluidity.” 
Of course I’m solid, I worked at the packing plant 35 years, you got to have good bones. Fluidity is another story. Half of what she says goes right over my head. 
When she finishes with my right hand she starts in on my left and all of a sudden it’s starting to feel a little hot in the room. Which is one of the reasons why I haven't told Betty none of this. She doesn’t know about Beauty Culture, and she’s not going to find out. Because I know what she would say. Me in a class with all women, plus the teacher who is — I've gotta be honest — something of a looker. 

Betty would put 2 and 2 together and it will add up to 5. She’ll think hanky panky. But it’s not. We learn about our colors there, and about the importance of taking care of your hair. And we learn extras, things that aren't exactly about beauty but they sure are about culture. Nadine taught us how to make crepe paper carnations one week, so you can always bring your own bouquet as a last minute present. Mine turned out pretty good, as a mater of fact, but I threw it away at McDonald's after class. How could I have explained that to Betty? You don't make a crepe paper flower arrangement in woodworking, right?
What I'm saying is, there’s no funny stuff that goes on in Beauty Culture. Nadine is a professional and we all respect her for it. But when she was rubbing my hands, I have to admit, I was not 100% thinking about how a good manicure is a sign of good breeding.

It was something of a relief to me when she finally got to my nails. All the while she’s working on me she’s explaining how to gently push back the cuticles. “Not too rough, girls,” she says to the ladies, and then she starts trimming the little bits of skin with those tiny doll scissors. She was very careful. You’ve got to be. Nadine explained how it’s important to keep your tools sterilized, to avoid the possibility of infection. Toni says her sister-in-law got a case of lockjaw from a bad manicure. “Must have been rusty scissors,” Nadine says. “Always go to a reputable practitioner.” 
I’ll have to figure out a way to work that into a conversation with my daughter, Marla. I’m not sure what she knows and what she doesn’t know, about the whole beauty culture field. It’s not exactly father/daughter material. But now I'm concerned. Maybe she doesn’t use a cream rinse, maybe she doesn’t push back her cuticles. This class is opening up a whole new can of worries for me.
So then Nadine says I’m all prepped, she’s going to apply the polish. The girls in the class are excited. “Give him fire engine red,” Dottie says, “it'll go with his cheeks.”
Damn, I was blushing. But Nadine, what a good egg she is, she says she's going use a clear polish. It's a manly look, she tells me. All the big movie stars do it now — George Clooney, De Niro.
“De Niro wears nail polish?” I ask her. This I find hard to believe. “Sure,” she says, “it’s very in. Even some football players.” There’s a good chance she’s making this stuff up, but really what do I care? 
Back when I was still working, if I'd seen a guy at the plant with polish on his fingernails, even clear polish, let’s just say I would have had a comment. But everything’s different now. When you’re retired it pays to cultivate an open mind. That’s what Betty tells me, and I see the point. “Beware of atrophy,” she says. You’d think she was taking a class at the Extension Center too, a vocabulary class. But no, she gets all this from the TV. 
So that's what I'm doing, I'm trying to cultivate an open mind. I let Nadine put on the polish. It’s not  as easy as you might think. It’s like coloring inside the lines and it wouldn't take much for something to go seriously wrong. But she does a very nice job. I don't know how she’s able to be so steady. The women are impressed, there’s a certain amount of oohing and ahhing. She says to them “Girls, when you practice on each other, never lose your concentration. Don’t let your mind wander, not even for a second, and you’ll be be alright.” In some ways, Beauty Culture is harder than the packing plant. There, the best thing you could do was let your mind wander.
That must be what happened to me, my mind started to wander, because there’s Nadine, putting the clear polish on me, and suddenly I’m a little boy again, back in my mother’s kitchen, sitting on a chair watching her polish her nails. She used a light shade, a pearly pink, like the inside of a shell it was. 

And then before I knew it I was saying “excuse me” to Nadine and the other ladies, and I walked out of the room. 
I went right down the hall to the men’s bathroom and I just stood in there and my heart was pounding in my chest. I thought maybe I was sick or having some sort of an attack, but then I realized it wasn’t that. I was just crying. It was because of my mother. Maybe the smell of the polish brought her back, or the way Nadine calls me Benny. 
Anyway, after a while I felt like myself again, and I went back to the classroom. They were all waiting for me. “Are you okay Benny?” they asked, and I could tell they really wanted to know.
“Yeah, no problem,”I said.
“You didn't smudge your polish did you?" Nadine asked. 
“Oh Nadine,” I said to her, “if I've learned anything in Beauty Culture it's how not to smudge my polish.”