I read this story on Sunday, May 7, during the Spring Writes Literary Festival. It's one of my longest. It's also one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy reading it.
There was a bit of a screw-up 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 somehow.
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. They’re very big on the “eee” sound in Beauty Culture. Except for the name Nadine, which I think has something to do with her being the teacher. It’s a sign of respect. Makes sense, I guess.
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.”
I don’t know what she’s talking about. 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 I feel it's getting 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, 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 ladies 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, Di Niro.
“Di 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 ladies 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 for even 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.”