The bright industrial lights hung in neat rows on the ceiling. And afterwards the sadness settled in Raymond, in his body. It went all over. Heavy. He couldn’t lift his arms or his head and couldn’t see his opponent’s face or understand what he was doing in the ring. He couldn’t think out there. Couldn’t move his feet fast enough, couldn’t move out of the way when a punch came. The punches landed in the middle of his face. Quick, hard, sudden. He saw it coming and he was trained to see it coming but he stood there like some fool just waiting for it. But it wasn’t him. It was the sadness. The heaviness of it. All over his body. In the review tapes you’d see the punch in slow motion, how it waved through his nose, his cheekbones, his temples, his ears, his hair like he was ocean. And when it was over he could see nothing but black light. He had to get out of it and he knew it for some time. He was just there for someone to punch through, a body to pass on the way to some victory belt. He had become what they call a trial horse. He said he’d quit if it ever got to be like that, and it got to be like that. It wasn’t the best way to go out but to go out was all he wanted.
So that’s why he got into the nail thing. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. The nail thing. He was scooping out ice-cream flavours at the mall and when that shift was over he was stir-frying bland bean sprouts and cabbage. His sister was the one who got him into the nails. She lived in a big house with her unemployed husband and four small children. They could afford for her husband to be at home because her business did so well. She owned Bird Spa and Salon. The slogan was “Nails! Cheap! Cheap!” It was catchy. She said Raymond didn’t have to go to school or nothing. He just had to listen to what she told him to do. It was just like it was in the ring. She’d yell at him like he was in the corner and he’d just go out and do it.
His sister didn’t want him living where he was, in a mouldy, cold basement with just one window. When he got the place he thought he would be able to see sky once in a while but the floor wasn’t down low enough and all he saw were shoes and boots and heels. Feet. No glimpse of sun or sky at all. He was feeling sorry for himself, as if he was the only one who ever lost a thing in the world but that wasn’t true. It was his sister who came to get him. She was real dramatic about it. She had a key to his apartment and kicked open the door and beat him on the chest, saying even if he didn’t want better for himself, she did. She brought up their dead parents. She always did that when she was desperate to make a meaningful point. She said they didn’t leave Laos, a bombed out country, in a war no one ever heard of, on a raft made of bamboo to have him scooping out ice cream or frying cabbages with old grease oil. So he joined her at Bird Spa and Salon just to get her to calm down about it all. Not long after that, he was answering the phones and saying, “Hello, Bird and Spa Salon. We do nails. Cheap! Cheap!”
At first he mopped the floor, filled the bottles with nail polish remover, cuticle oil or whatever it was that was running low. He cut hand towels into neat little squares to save everyone time. He turned on the switch to keep the waxing oil hot. When all that got to be easy for him to do, she asked him to sit in and watch whenever the girls did manicures and pedicures or waxed an eyebrow or upper lip. It amazed him to see people transform so instantaneously. They came in looking sad and tired and exhausted but left giggling and happy and refreshed. He thought of the injuries he’d caused in the ring when he was younger, just starting out. There was the guy who didn’t wake up until a year later or the guy who lost his confidence, stopped training and ate donuts all day and let himself lose his shape and lost his whole career. He thought of seeing only the black light and waiting for the black dots to disappear. Waiting for the bell to ring so he knew they were into the next round. Boxing was just sad and tired and exhausted, the way he knew it.
When one of the girls who had worked there quit on his sister because she had a bad cough that wasn’t going away, and his sister could do nothing to help her, she let her go and he was given his own station. The first thing he did was put the plastic basket of supplies and lotions to the left of him. She didn’t like that. “What the fuck, Raymond. You going southpaw on me now. You a right-hand. All your supplies go on the right. Fuck! Maybe you shoulda thought of that when you were boxing. You know how fucking southpaws are hard to fight—they do everything backwards. It’s too late isn’t it. To go southpaw now.” Raymond didn’t say anything. He just moved the basket to his right. It was easier to do.
His sister had him practice on some plastic hand dummy. Thing was, it wasn’t attached to anything. It was severed at the wrist and stood straight up like it was high-fiving. The plastic hand could be moved around for a better angle to paint a heart or put on dots. His sister watched him without saying a word. Then, she picked up the plastic hand and waved it in his face and said, “But hands come with fucking bodies! You can’t be turning them three hundred and sixty degrees to draw a fucking heart! And is that what this is supposed to be, Raymond—a fucking heart? Looks to me like a stinking blob of disgusting shit.” Then she made him practice on her. For someone who did manicures all the time for other people, his sister sure didn’t have the best nails. They were too long and yellowed at the tips. Her skin was dry and flaking. It was like watching a dentist with tartar-stained teeth preaching about flossing and brushing often. “Watch your fucking face! I know what you’re thinking about these nails. If I paint them, the polish remover I use on clients will just fuck them up. And I ain’t going to use that gel shit on myself. It’s fucking expensive.” He started to cut her nails, when she added, “And you have to talk to me like I’m your client. Most of the time they won’t talk to you because they think you don’t know how to speak English, which is fine because it’s exhausting to make conversation. I don’t care about their kids or husbands or boyfriends or what the fuck they’re doing this weekend. If you don’t want to talk to a client because you’re tired or not interested just turn to me and speak Lao. They’ll think we’re talking about them and that’ll shut them right the fuck up.” For cheap nails, Raymond had to do and remember so much.
Most who came in were patient with his mistakes. Many came in with chipped polish on their nails and he would remove it. The clients liked that this big burly former-boxer was handling their female hands. He thought they might be uncomfortable with a man handling them this way but they only thought it was wonderful to be touched by that kind of muscle in so gentle a manner. Raymond was good with the endless repetition and assessing what needed to be done. It reminded him of sparring at the gym, having to think quick, act, respond, handle the situation, anticipate what was coming. No one client was the same but there were some basic things everyone needed. He removed polish, cut nails, applied cuticle oil and pushed skin away from the nails, to give it a clean look and shape. Some nails had no shape. They came out straight and flat on the nail bed and he had to round them with a file. The file moved around the corners of the nail and he had to work the file at a forty-five degree angle, deciding where on the nail it should begin to bend. It was very subtle, the bend. He wore a mask at first to cover his nose and mouth and he wore gloves too but he couldn’t get a proper grip and couldn’t converse with his clients so after a few days he removed them and exposed himself to those tiny shards of nail dust that entered and scratched at his lungs.
There were so many colours. He couldn’t get his head around it all and remember them so he just told his clients to pick a colour once they walked through the door: Shrimp Sunday, Funny Cool, Double Personality Blue, Alter Ego Pink. The names and colours went on along and all around the walls. Because he was a man and because it was so unusual to see a man doing nails, the clients gave him large tips, twenty or thirty dollar tips, while the girls in the spa got two or three dollar tips. They told him the tips were to buy something nice for his little lady, take her out on a date or simply because they enjoyed a good flirting. His sister, one to always notice things, said, “Fuck! Shit! I don’t get those kinds of tips. It’s because you’re a fucking man, isn’t it? Men. Even in a business I own myself and built up myself, we are still paying them more. And these are women who are doing this. They should know!” And she’d mumble something while he counted his tips, which added up to more than what his sister charged for mani-pedis.
It was the toes he despised the most. After only a few weeks of working on them, he got warts on his hands and had to take a few days off. His sister said, “Shit! I ain’t gonna let anyone see that ugly shit while you’re working on them. Plus, it might be contagious. I don’t fucking know. I told you to wear gloves!” Raymond didn’t like arguing or talking back to his sister. She’d always taken care of things and of him. Even though it wasn’t the greatest place to be working, it was a chance to be with family. She talked tough and was for real tough but she had a good heart. It was possible to be both.
He picked at a wart on his hand. “You ain’t gonna quit on me now because of this are you? You know people come in just to see you. They love seeing a former boxer painting nails at the salon! They all ask for you. And those tips you get. They’re something special. Never seen anything like that.” But it wasn’t the warts he was worried about. Warts weren’t so bad as mumbling nonsense and bad headaches and black lights or being dead. Warts went away eventually. That didn’t bother him. It was the smell of feet. It was like it got into the pores of his nostrils and grew there, like a follicle of hair. It was becoming a growing part of him, the smell. He could never forget what he did for his living because it was always there. Not even when he was cooking or eating would the smell go away. It got to be that he was beginning to taste the smell of feet at the back of his throat. It smelled sour, a little like bleach. It also got to be that he didn’t enjoy food either which made him lose a little weight and this made his sister tell him it was a good idea since it made him look good and that meant more clients coming in to see him. But it was not the women. He blamed this smell on the men. Most women took care of themselves. Their toes were clean and taken care of to begin with, years of salon and spa visits. It was the men who came in, who had never had a pedicure their whole lives and wore heavy socks and leather boots all year round. Ones who had been too embarrassed to show their untreated toes to a female pedicurist. As a man, Raymond knew not to mention or speak or acknowledge the mess, the years of neglect and abandon just because the feet had been out of sight. The layers of skin he had to slough off like cutting a slice of butter. His sister would say, “You know why the skin there is yellow? Well, the fucking guy pees in the fucking shower! That’s why. Disgusting fucking hell!”
Well, they were not all disgusting. There were some favourite clients like Miss Emily. He didn’t have much to do when she came in. Her cuticles were already peeled back and her nail bed was long and thin and smoothed. The skin on her hands and feet felt like a baby’s. She would always do him the courtesy of removing her nail polish so he could start on the filing and paraffin wax and then lay down the three layers of polish. The first layer was to protect the nail from the polish, then there was the polish colour itself, and the last layer was to help from chipping and to keep it shiny. His sister—and sisters do know their brothers well—watched him closely, and said, “What, you think you got a chance with that Miss Emily there? She’s rich and educated. None of the things we are or are ever gonna be. Don’t you be dreaming, little brother. Keep your dreams small so life don’t ever hurt you and spit you out with your innards all hanging out for all to see. It just ain’t ever gonna happen. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice. And cook that shit up and swallow it every night then shit that fucking thing out in the morning. It ain’t ever gonna happen. If there’s something I know in this life, it’s rich women. And that woman ain’t for you.” But even when someone talked him down like that, Raymond just kept at it. When he didn’t see Miss Emily, he painted and shaped all his clients feet like Miss Emily’s. If he could get the nails looking like hers, anyone could be like Miss Emily. And like everything else in this life that could be true, his sister, the older one, the one who had been around longer and knew better, as much as he hated it, he knew she was right.
One day, Miss Emily was seen at the door of the store with a distinguished man. He wore a three-piece suit and had polished black shoes and despite the smell of feet, Raymond could smell the man’s cologne. It was not one of those drugstore scents. Raymond would know about them. He had tried them all. Miss Emily stood at the doorway with this man and in his smell she disappeared as if a dark cloud moved in and covered up all that was bright and good about her when she was alone.
His sister saw his face fall, the way it fell in the ring when he knew he was losing. After, on the drive home to his same old place, she said, “Raymond. Didn’t I tell you. You’ve got to not have dreams. That woman ain’t gonna love a man who does nails. Just ain’t gonna happen. You’re given a place in this life and you just do your best in it. Fucking give it up. I hate when you get like this. Plenty of girls for you! They want to get with you all the time but you don’t let yourself see it. Like the girls at the shop. They’re all wet for you.”
Those girls were married or serious with someone. What his sister didn’t know was what they talked about behind her back when she went out for a smoke or when she had to go out and get supplies. How they tried to get pregnant but none ever caught on because of the chemicals. How their coughs started and didn’t ever stop. Even if this dream about a Miss Emily was not his to have, he thought it was nice to have it anyway. He knew it was naïve and not real worldly like his sister was, but this little dream was his, and it was decent. This idea that someone like Miss Emily could love him. Raymond, not one to speak up to his sister, but this one time said, “Well, you know, maybe Miss Emily ain’t ever gonna be with a man like me but I want to dream it anyway. It’s a nice feeling and I ain’t had one of those things to myself in a long time. I know I don’t got a chance in hell and faced with that I wanna have that thought anyway. It’s to get by. It’s to get to the next hour, the next day. Don’t you go reminding me what dreams a man like me ought to have. That I can dream at all means something to me.” And his sister looked away from his face. His face looked like hers but beaten and beaten up. A crooked nose, a busted eyebrow with the hair not meeting in the same place. Although her face was treated to facials and creams and anti-wrinkle serums and was smooth and glowing, she felt like Raymond’s face, beaten and busted, and she just didn’t want to look at that face hoping. Hope was a terrible thing for her—it meant it wasn’t there for you, whatever you were hoping for.
She took out a cigarette, lit it and fumed at the mouth, while he stared down at his palms where the warts were coming in again and would put him out for a few more weeks. As they sat there in silence, in the oncoming darkness, their car windows were open. They could hear a family in their backyard, somewhere nearby, the sizzle on the barbeque, the sweet smell of steak on the grill, and the giggling. It was the kind of giggling they themselves did as kids. Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they ever could do about it now was to be close to it and out of sight.
Souvankham Thammavongsa’s story “How to Pronounce Knife” was shortlisted for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.