Tenderfoot was a pedicure parlor on Main Street near Channing. Two reclining chairs—usually only one was in use—faced the street through a large plate glass window. And so customers, alone with Lynn, got a kind of public privacy—anybody could see them, no one but Lynn could hear them. Lynn was an expert listener—rarely commenting on what she heard, never repeating it.
She was a widow, forty-nine and childless. She lived behind and above her store. She played poker with five other women every Saturday night. They called each other by their last names and smoked cigars. She had lost her husband, a talented mechanic, to the war. Carl was in favor of the war, more or less, but he’d joined up mainly to get further mechanical training at the military’s expense. She’d objected to his risking their joint future, their happiness . . . but she’d let the argument drop. The army took him despite his age. And then, three days into the desert, the tank he was riding met a mine. Each of his parts was severed from the others, and his whole—his former whole—was severed from Lynn.
Lynn’s practice expanded. She had always been popular with faculty wives and local lawyers and dentists, who appreciated that a footbath administered by a discreet attendant squatting on a stool could become a kind of secular confessional. Now, perhaps because of her recent sad history, she caught on with booksellers and high school teachers and nurses. They discovered how easy she was to talk to. Doctors sent patients to her, elderly women who could no longer bend down to clean their feet, could no longer clip their own toenails. Elderly men, too—their joints were as stiff as their wives’.
That fall—the fall of Bobby Farraday’s arrival at the college to teach Art History—other male clients began to appear, not sent by their doctors. A professor emeritus of physics was the first. Then another professor, not emeritus. The high school principal in an access of bravado had his toenails painted raspberry sherbet, chattering all the while.
Bobby had rented rooms ideal for someone newly separated with no interest in changing his circumstances. He hung the engravings that had been his, not Renée’s, in the living room and the narrow one-bedded bedroom. The tiny kitchen was just big enough for him and an unseen resident mouse. These rooms and kitchen were on the second floor of a Victorian, and the bathroom occupied the whole of the third-floor turret. The house happened to be located on Channing Street near its intersection with Main, which put it more or less diagonally opposite to Tenderfoot. Bobby and Lynn often ran into each other in the early evening—at the vegetarian market, at the newspaper and tobacco kiosk, at the bookstore. Sometimes they talked, as neighbors do.
Secretly he considered himself more than her neighbor. He was her invisible housemate, as the mouse was his. His high bathroom had a broad curtainless window next to the toilet. The window gave him an angled view of the work space of the pedicure shop and a bit of Lynn’s living space beyond. He took advantage of his situation. Sometimes he stood to watch the pedicures, but usually he sat on the lidded toilet, like a peep show connoisseur. He liked to see the customers relax on the chair, as if this quasi-biblical experience transported them to some soapy heaven, as if, briefly dead, they could call their sins forgiven. Or maybe they were just happy to have a chance to kick off their shoes and talk about their troubles.
He conducted his classes, showed his slides, met with students during office hours. He found the teaching and the kids distracting. One of the blonde young women reminded him of Renée—knowledgeable on the outside, unsure on the inside. But even inviting a student to take in a movie was forbidden, and he hurried away from his office hours to watch, alone, the blameless performance on Main Street.
The days got shorter. Lynn’s last customers walked under dim streetlights and entered a brightly lit shop. One dark afternoon Bobby saw the red-cheeked chemistry professor and his wife, side by side on the chairs as if driving to the movies. Lynn, gently kicking her stool, moved from one to the other.
Down in his study Bobby took off his own shoes and then his right sock. He had stopped attending to his feet after the accident. Now, how appalling the linty corned toes, how distressing the jagged toenails. No wonder all his socks had holes. He took off his left sock and rested the left foot on his right knee. His heel was scored with lines as if it could tell his fortune. Still barefoot he returned to his unlit turret and looked out of the window. Bent over the chemistry professor’s tootsies Lynn personified hard work, like Renée bent over her briefs. Back in New York, Renée had moved inflexibly towards her goal—she wanted to be made partner; whereas Bobby had practiced indifference and inattention, writing careless reviews for short-lived arts magazines, making off-the-cuff attributions for the galleries who consulted him. This difference in attitude had led to arguments.
After her last customer left, Lynn often came out and sat on the store’s single broad step and lit a narrow cigar. Bobby used the toilet, reading by flashlight. He turned off the flashlight and watched her smoke. Around midnight she went to bed. He did too.
This went on for a while. He thought of buying binoculars, but she wasn’t a bird. He thought of dragging out his opera glasses, but she wasn’t a soprano. He thought of employing his loupe, but she wasn’t a work of art, and even if she had been a painting he was too far away to examine brush strokes. After the first snowfall she wore a parka outdoors, and a fuzzy hat. She needed a fur coat, an otter maybe like Renee’s, but the animal rights students would put her in the stocks. Anyway, she probably couldn’t afford a fur coat. How much did you collect for a dead soldier? And even a flourishing pedicure business couldn’t make a big profit. She could always go to work in the local pharmacy, he supposed. She’d studied pharmacy, she told him once, but she preferred this work—she was her own boss, and she ministered directly to people.
Spring at last moistened the town. Impasto leaves replaced pastel buds. He considered self-improvement. He might become a vegan. Let the mouse have his cheese. “So how much does it cost?” he blurted one afternoon. They’d met in the health store, he holding a jar of prune extract plucked in a hurry from the shelf, she examining something in a bottle.
“This is a dollar an ounce. But for efficacy it has to be mixed with . . . ”
“Not the snake oil. A pedicure.”
She looked up. Her eyes in her lightly wrinkled face were the blue of a Veronese sky. “Fifty dollars. Ten more for polishing. Tipping not allowed.”
“Oh. Can I have one?”
“Friday at eight.”
“Eight? My Cubism seminar is at 8:30 . . . ”
She smiled. “Eight in the evening.”
“Oh . . . I’ll see you then?”
“See you,” she reassured him.
Friday night he scrubbed his feet. He put on clean socks. He snatched up a book he wasn’t reading, The Later Roman Empire.
He took the left-hand chair. When he tipped his head sideways and raised his eyes he could see the window to his bathroom, its light carelessly left on, wasting his landlady’s electricity.
While Lynn was filling an oblong wooden tub with hot water and a swirl of thick white stuff, he took off his shoes. She herself removed his socks, folding them onto the top of the table between the chairs. In the old days, Renée had picked them up from the floor, stuck out her tongue at him.
“White, red, or tea?” Lynn asked.
Renée had never played airline hostess. Bobby raised one shoulder and then another, as if Lynn would turn into a masseuse next, expertly tenderizing the back of his neck. “White, please.”
She moved to the back of the room and a refrigerator door opened and closed. She put a goblet of wine on the table next to the socks. “You can recline further. Just push the little button on the side of the arm.” He reclined further. A ledge rose with his bare feet on it. She dragged over her stool and sat down. He covered his erection with The Later Roman Empire. She rolled up each leg of his pants to the middle of the calf.
Then she contemplated her new customers. “Have they ever had a pedicure?”
“Nope. Ten little virgins.”
“Some men find the process effeminizing.”
“Well . . . no polish, please.”
“Not a drop. And some find it decadent, like your Romans. We’ll see how you feel.”
Wearing surgical gloves she examined his dreadful feet—the corns, the ragged nails, the discoloration, the beginning of a bunion, the heels that seemed made of animal horn. Then she fetched the tub of water. Cradling his ankles in one arm she bent back the foot-ledge of his chair and moved the tub a little and slid his feet into the warm liquid. The stuff that had resembled crème fraiche turned out to be a lightly foaming soap and the water glimpsed beneath it a smoky gray. He closed his eyes, imagined a future filled with princely attentions.
After a while he opened them. He saw that she was continuing to sit on her stool, a thick towel on her lap, and that his now clean but still unsightly feet were on the towel. They seemed detached from his body, from his rolled-up jeans; they were a pair of unnecessary footnotes. Ibid. and Sic, he named them aloud.
“Exfoliation is the next task,” she told him.
“Exfoliation?” He knew what it meant, but her voice was a lyre.
“Exfoliate is to cast off or separate, in scales, flakes, sheets, or layers. Flakes is what your feet will yield.”
She began to scrape his soles and heels with an elfin scalpel. He glanced at her. The dark head was bent, and she offered no small talk. So he closed his eyes again, thinking of his mother and tender bath times. But a different memory muscled in.
They were driving in a snowstorm. They wanted to get home. Everyone on the highway, coming and going, wanted to get home. Twelve inches were expected. The storm forbade speed. Whiter and whiter became their medium, and all the cars within it a pastier white, white spread with a knife. Suddenly, on the other side of the median strip, a bit of humped purple spun like a dancer, lifted itself like an animal, groped in the air with its four round feet, and fell back onto its roof. It lay in the highway. Other automobiles edged slowly past it.
“Did you see?” gasped Renée.
“There’ll be a turnaround ahead. We must go back.”
“And do our own somersault? There are state police. There are other people traveling in the same direction as that Volkswagen.”
“Other people? Nobody is stopping. Only us.”
“Not us, darling.”
He heard the click of her seat belt and she fell onto his feet and tried to pry his shoe off the accelerator.
“Stop that, Renée. I’ll have to kick you.”
He didn’t kick her: his instep sternly lifted her hands. The buckle of his boot met her face and entered it, though he didn’t know that until later. She gave up then, and hunched in her seat, crying, crying.
“Put your seat belt back on.”
Click. She stopped crying, stopped speaking. They got home after a few more perilous hours. She slept on the couch. And the next day, a Band-Aid on her cheek, and a little rosy streak making its infected way towards her chin, she went silently to work.
And then she transformed the episode into an argument about moral responsibility. It was what she did best, and so she did it—night after night, then once a week, then once a month. He argued back to show he cared about ethical behavior, though what tormented him was the vision. He saw the spin and the overturn again and again. Then he elaborated: onto a white shirred background came a splash of purple; it bounced; broken stick figures slid from the half-open door. Or he saw, within the upended machine, soft sculptures sinking into their own mashed heads. Or he saw the windows shatter and the white surround become splattered and splotched with red, ecru, gray—blood, flesh, brains. Porcelain bits landed on the canvas: bones and teeth.
When the letter came from the college inviting him to teach he presented it to her. She said no.
He wrote yes, and shipped the etchings, and boarded a plane.
“Exfoliation completed,” said Lynn’s soft voice. He opened his eyes. She held the folded towel aloft. He saw a mountain of translucent flakes of skin with here and there a toenail poking out and, on top of the mountain, a large bit of callus she had removed without his feeling a thing. He marveled at this exuda like a small boy proud of his poop. “A second soaking now,” and she brought new, clear, warm water.
He soaked without assistance.
She sat down next to him. She sighed: a rather happy sound. Perhaps Fate, working through the rental agent who showed him his place, had delivered him to her. She could learn to like paintings, even cut down on poker. He sighed too; and with his nearer hand he picked up the wine from the table between them and transferred it to his other hand. She put her palm on top of his folded socks. He fingered her fingers.
Together they watched a cab roll down Channing Street towards them, bright eyes shining. It stopped at his house. Out stepped a blonde in a belted raincoat. The January thaw was too warm for the otter. Her hair was more disheveled than he’d ever seen it outside of the bedroom. A stocky cabwoman removed a large wheeled suitcase.
“That’s Finnegan’s cab. She’s a poker friend of mine,” said Lynn.
Finnegan received her money and drove away, though the house was dark except for the turret. Renée left the suitcase on the sidewalk and went up the steps to the door. Bobby could see her, could feel her, pushing the bell.
Renée stood in front of the door for a while, then with bowed head descended the stairs and trundled her suitcase across Channing and headed towards Main. He could see her pretty face and the expression of anxiety it never quite lost. It was the face that had approached him as she walked down the aisle. He could see, or thought he could, the scar he’d created. He could guess that she had at last forgiven him for not turning around and driving back and extracting corpses from the Volkswagen. He had long ago forgiven her those saintly reproofs. She crossed Main and stood in front of Tenderfoot.
Should he let her in? Her presence or nonpresence, her forgiveness or dismay, his occasional indulgence in exfoliation, or in psychoanalysis, meditation, religion, drugs, coffee enemas—nothing would scrub from his mind’s eye the purple machine leaping upwards into the falling snow and returning head down to asphalt. He had to live with the memory. He might as well live with Renée, too.
Still he sat.
Still she peered.
With an irritated shrug Lynn walked to the door, opened it, nodded at the after-hours guest, motioned her inside.
“This is Renée, my wife, former,” said Bobby. “This is Lynn, my pedi . . . my aesthetologist.”
“Perhaps we could have some more wine,” Bobby said.
Lynn said: “Perhaps you could dry your feet, and take the lady home.”
He was slow about foot drying, shoelace tying, looking in vain for the book on Rome, paying. He forgot not to tip; Lynn took the extra money. At last they were gone, Renée still wheeling the suitcase. Lynn turned to the welcome chores of throwing towels into the washing machine and boiling instruments. Then she turned out the lamps in the shop.
His turret was still bright. She knew that he spied on her from its obliging window. She had seen him plain, doing it at twilight; she had seen him at night, when the mild light from the street lamps entered the turret and was modestly strengthened by porcelain and mirror, creating a complicated chiaroscuro background against which his seated form was an opaque cutout. Maybe the comings and goings at Tenderfoot raised his spirits; maybe he needed to transcend difficult moments on the can. She’d sympathized with his aloneness; she’d considered it promising. Now—for he had talked unaware during his reverie, people often did—she knew that he was not alone, that he lived in the crushing embrace of an unforgettable incident.
Even when miserable after Carl’s death she had endured no such haunting. When she thought of Carl she remembered with pleasure the soft brown hair of his thick eyebrows, and the reflective way he examined any broken-down appliance before deciding how to fix it, and Sunday football, and the disappointing fact of his sterility, though it had troubled him more than it did her: she played the hand she was dealt. And anyway, he wasn’t impotent. Oh, his feet. He liked her to wash his feet and clip his nails, and she liked to do it, and they always made love afterwards, first lowering the shop’s blinds, then lying flat on the floor, sole to sole. Edging forward, he stroked her inner thighs with his heel and then he put his big toe in her keyhole and worried it for a while, and that was all she needed. After her ecstasy they progressed to conventional positions and a second pleasure.
She sat down in Bobby’s chair and kicked off her clogs. She picked up The Later Roman Empire—it was hiding under a towel. She let her bare feet slide into his tray of water, now cold. She felt the calm disinhibition that liquid provided. She thought: Bobby and his wife, former, had been selected to witness a disaster and had failed to act. Another thought, heavy and treaded like a tank, rolled up to her; Carl gazed out of it with disappointment. She too had failed to act. She had not refused to let Carl enlist. She might have stopped him. She could have held him home. “Who knew there wasn’t a child in that car?” Bobby had inquired half an hour ago, eyes closed, Ibid. and Sic on her lap, not knowing or caring that he was thinking aloud, not knowing or caring that his unmoving feet had kicked a hole in her smooth innocence. “An infant, maybe.”
An infant, an ancient, a mature recruit . . . what matter who? Whoever they were, they had been flipped into lifelessness and had abandoned the future. They had turned their dead backs on survivors now doomed to mourn until the ends of their own days.