PRAISE FOR THE MANICURIST-- "Schieber has painted a fine portrait of the struggles and challenges of being different in an unforgiving world. Her characters are authentic and touching. Using language that is at once both straightforward and evocative, Schieber writes a story that you will...

Phyllis Schieber

First Chapter

Chapter One
First meetings could be so telling. Tessa knew this as well, if not better, than most. She was almost always accurate, tallying her small conquests according to conscience. After all, some conclusions, especially about people, were simply obvious. So when Tessa looked up from her work station in response to the woman’s question about whether or not she needed an appointment for a plain manicure, and felt a stirring that was as inviting as it was alarming, she was prepared for something, though what she could not say. Before Tessa could say anything, the woman, just as cheerfully as she had the first time, asked her question again.
““Do I need an appointment for a plain manicure?””“

The woman was in her sixties, perhaps younger, or maybe older. Tortoise shell glasses hung around her neck on a braided silver chain. Strands of dark hair, sharply streaked with grey, escaped from a loose bun that was pierced with elaborately painted black enamel hair pins. She was plump, which probably explained the skirt with the elasticized waist, and she immediately endeared herself to Tessa for no other reason than she seemed so comfortable with her appearance.

““Yes,”“ Tessa said. She stood for no apparent reason. ““Usually, especially on a Saturday. The receptionist, Kara, will be able to help you.”“
“”“But today is Thursday.”” The woman eyed Tessa’s black slacks, black sweater and black flats, a combination that imitated what all the other workers were wearing. ““Are you the manicurist?””

The collision of feelings that Tessa had first experienced made her suspicious, and she reminded herself that as a general rule, it was always best to honor instinct before emotion.
““Yes. I am,”” Tessa said, slightly flustered. ”“I’m the manicurist.”” Her pale cheeks felt hot, and she shook her head as though this could help her regain some composure. She wondered how this woman had managed to elude Kara. Anna Marie, the manager of Escape, a day spa, referred to Kara as St. Peter, insisting that no one could get by without some interrogation. ““What I meant to say is that we don’t encourage walk-ins, but it’s been a slow day, and I just happen to have a cancellation. And, well, you’re here.””
The woman smiled so genuinely that Tessa smiled also and stooped to help her with the mesh shopping bag that kept toppling over.
““Thank you,”” she said. ““That’s very kind of you. Very kind.”” She offered her hand and said, ““I’m Fran Hill.””
Tessa casually ignored Fran’s hand and set the mesh shopping bag against the wall. It was brimming over with fresh produce. She smelled garlic, onions and parsley, and something else she could not quite make out in a blend so compelling that her stomach growled.
““Excuse me,”” she said, deliberately patting her belly with both hands as a way to discourage any further contact. ““I’m Tessa Jordan. So do you want a manicure?””
““Yes. I definitely need a manicure today.”” She tried to make it seem as if she had never offered her hand in the first place and fiddled with the waistband of her skirt. ““Have you had your lunch, Tessa Jordan?””
““Well, no. Not yet.””
Fran sat and rummaged through the bag, mumbling softly to herself, but in a way that invited eavesdropping. ““One of these days I’m going to finally clean this bag out. Just dump everything. Way too much stuff.”” Finally, she pulled a Barbie thermos from the depths of the bag and set it on Tessa’s table.
““Wait a moment. Just a second,”” Fran said. ““Here now.”” She produced a cloth napkin and a soup spoon. ““Try this.”” She unscrewed the lid of the thermos and inhaled deeply as the aroma was released. ““It does smell wonderful, doesn’t it? Eat right from the thermos. I have gallons of the stuff at home. Whenever I’m in a tizzy, I seem to make soup. Too much soup, always too much. I have to give it away, so I can make more.””

Hesitantly, Tessa took the spoon from Fran. Tessa had been witness to some strange things in the salon, but Fran and her soup were unprecedented. There seemed to be no way to politely discourage this woman from imposing her soup on strangers.

““Go on,”” Fran said. ““I promise you it isn’t poisonous. Once you get to know me you’ll understand my need to feed everyone.””
Once I get to know her? Tessa swallowed and tried to discreetly sniff the soup. ““But isn’t this your lunch?””
““Oh goodness, no. I’ve already had my lunch.””
““Weren’t you bringing it somewhere?””
““Yes, certainly, I was,”” Fran said in a tone that suggested Tessa had asked a really funny question.
““Well, it does smell wonderful, and I am hungry.”” She held the spoon to her lips, and was about to take her first mouthful. Then she looked at Fran again, more carefully this time, and said, ““Have we met before?””
““No,”” Fran said. ““I don’t believe we have. Go on now, have some soup.””
The soup was quite unlike anything Tessa had ever eaten. The stock was flecked with bits of yellow corn and something else that wasn’t bacon but gave the broth a smoky flavor. Tessa bit hungrily into chunks of chicken and fat lima beans.
While Tessa ate, Fran studied the nail polish display. She held each bottle up to the light, squinted and then examined the label on the bottom, and said the names aloud. Keys To My Karma, Bubble Bath, Spring Bloom, I’m Not Really a Waitress. She seemed more interested in the names than in the colors. Fran waited quietly, a bottle palmed in her hand, for Tessa to finish. When the last drop had been scraped from the thermos, Tessa wiped the spoon with the napkin and screwed the lid back on.
““Did you have something in mind?”” Tessa asked.

““Excuse me?””
““A color,”” Tessa said. ““Did you have a color in mind?””
Fran plucked a bottle of pale lilac polish from the display. ““I like this, Peach Daiquiri,”” she said, handing the bottle to Tessa. ““You don’t think it’s too young for me, do you?””
Tessa set the bottle down and considered not only the question, but the woman who asked it. Tessa worried she would be unable to defend herself against Fran’s intentions. Although Tessa was usually able to avert the onslaught of feeling that touch could deliver, Fran’s will seemed very strong. It did not take much of either intelligence or vision to see that she had arrived with a purpose. Tessa stalled before beginning the manicure. She spent more time than necessary setting up her area and fussing with her tools. Fran watched these rituals without complaint. She had positioned the bottle of polish close to Tessa on the padded rest. Fran’s hands remained on the table, anticipating Tessa’s ministrations with patience. When Tessa saw this, she felt as if Fran had transformed the work station into an altar, a place where her jagged cuticles and careworn hands would be sanctified.
““Too young?”” Tessa said. Her own hands felt unsteady. ““I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you. Nail polish is supposed to be playful.””

Fran smiled. ““I suppose it’s an odd question anyway coming from someone who uses a Barbie thermos.””
““Yes, I suppose so.”” Tessa laughed and took Fran’s hands, relieved by the absence of turbulence that could only be interpreted as a good sign. ““Besides, I’ve always liked Barbie. I think she’s unfairly criticized.””
““I wholeheartedly agree,”” Fran said.
Tessa dipped a Q Tip into a dish of warmed cream and slathered the pink concoction around the tired edges of each of Fran’s nails. She rubbed the cream in well and examined each nail carefully, scowling at the cuticles.
““I prefer to just push the cuticles back, but I might have to trim some of these hanging pieces.””

““Do what you have to do,”” Fran said.

Tessa took an orange stick and began to gently push back at the cuticles. Then she selected a pair of clippers from her tray and deftly trimmed the stray pieces of skin. She excused herself and returned with a heated washcloth. She pressed the palms of her own hands together as if in prayer.

““Like this, please,”” she said.

Fran obeyed. Tessa wrapped the warm cloth around Fran’s hands and patted gently. After a few moments, Tessa removed the cloth and dropped it into a bin. She drew a deep breath and reached for Fran’s left hand. First, Tessa massaged each finger and then moved to include Fran’s entire hand. It was a large hand that immediately made Tessa suspect that Fran was comfortable with delicate work. It was Tessa’s experience that people with small hands had notions about their own talents that far surpassed reality. The feel of Fran’s hand was both solid and flexible. It suggested the sort of courage that was easily masked as perseverance. But Tessa knew better. This was a strong woman, and though Tessa usually tried to disregard what she felt when attending clients, her thumb pressed hard on the center of Fran’s palm, probing for details.

““Are you looking for something?”” Fran asked.
Tessa dropped Fran’s hands.
““Oh, please,”” Fran said. She reached across the table and held Tessa by the wrist. ““I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Continue. Please.””
Tessa was suddenly very tired. It had been some time since she had felt so overwhelmed by simple contact.
““Are you all right?”” Fran said.
““I’m fine,”” Tessa said. She felt confused, not at all herself. ““I’m sorry.””
““Don’t be, please. It’s all right.””
““I know a bit of palmistry,”” Tessa said. ““It’s interesting in my line of work. To know palmistry, I mean.””
““Of course,”” Fran said. ““It must make the work more meaningful.””
““It can.””
““And it’s so convenient. What you do and all. So lucky for you to have your skills so closely intertwined,”” Fran said.
““Yes, I guess it is lucky,”” Tessa said. ““Though I don’t really consider myself skilled in palmistry. I took it up as a hobby.””
She was talking too much even though she was eager to change the subject, or to stay on it. She wasn’t sure at all. All her wires had been crossed somehow, and the good feelings she had toward Fran were less generous now.
““I love to pry,”” Fran said. ““Especially if I could go unnoticed.””

She had said this as though they were confidants, and it chafed at Tessa’s nerves. She was exasperated all over again.
““I wasn’t prying.””
““Yes, of course,”” Fran said quickly, trying to be conciliatory. She offered Tessa both hands at once, but Tessa tapped them, dismissing them. ““How did you learn palmistry?””
““I guess you do love to pry,”” Tessa smiled. ““And you’re quite good at it.””
““Tell me about myself,”” Fran said.
““I just did,”” Tessa said more pointedly than she had intended.
But she was curious about this woman, and reached for Fran’s left hand, holding it in both her own. Fran’s thumb was firmly jointed. She was, as Tessa had expected, a woman of rare will. Tessa assessed the length of Fran’s fingers, noting that the third finger was unusually long.

““Do you paint?”” Tessa asked.
““I used to. Oils,”” Fran said. ““Miniatures. I don’t anymore.””
““I thought you might have some experience with delicate work.””
““Most people assume I’m clumsy.””
Tessa nodded and then scrutinized Fran’s nails. They were shell shaped and finely hued, but sorely neglected. She massaged Fran’s hands again, one at a time, but this time without any reserve. She tugged at each finger, waiting for Fran to speak, knowing she would.
““Are you self-taught?”” Fran finally asked.
Tessa ignored the question and continued to tug. ““Do you prefer square or round?””
““You decide for me.””
Tessa picked up the scissors and made one single cut across each nail, leaving each square. Then she selected a file and began to work, filing directly across the flat edge of the nail in one constant direction. Fran closed her eyes and seemed to be sleeping. She even kept her eyes closed when Tessa followed through all the same steps with the left hand. Neither of them spoke. Tessa first buffed, and then applied nail strengthener, and a base coat. Finally, Tessa unscrewed the bottle of polish and applied the first coat, using three strokes on each nail. One at the center of the nail, and then one stroke on either side. She applied a second coat, and still no word passed between them. Fran’s eyes remained closed, giving Tessa full access to scrutinize every detail while maintaining a careful distance. She had few friends, mostly because the exchange of confidences that was eventually expected was not something Tessa easily shared. Yet now, in spite of Tessa’s typical wariness, she wanted some assurance that she would see Fran again.
““You’ll need at least twenty minutes to dry,”” Tessa said. Fran’s eyes remained closed, but Tessa knew how to open them. ““My mother taught me about palmistry. She felt it would be useful.””
Fran’s eyes flew open. Now, she stared at Tessa’s face, but said nothing. Nothing at all.

““Do you like your nails?”” Tessa asked almost too cheerfully. ““The color is good for you.””
““Yes, they’re lovely,”” Fran said. She gave them a perfunctory glance. ““Very shiny and all, but I can’t wait twenty minutes. I simply can’t wait that long. I really have to be going.””
Tessa calmly watched as Fran soaked one cotton ball after another in nail polish remover and rapidly wiped the polish from each fingernail.

““There now,”” she said when she was done. ““That’s better.”” She blew on her damp nails and waved her hands about a bit. ““I hope you’re not angry.””

““Not at all,”” Tessa said, though she was a bit stunned. She shrugged. ““They’re your nails and your money.””
Fran stood and rummaged in her purse. She withdrew a five-dollar bill and placed it under the bottle of polish.

““Thank you,”” Tessa said. ““That’s very generous. And thank you for the soup.””
Fran screwed the lid back on the Barbie thermos and dropped it into her satchel. She took a bobby pin off one of the nearby trays and secured a wayward strand of hair. The whole time, she kept her eyes on Tessa. Fran groped around in her coat pocket and withdrew a piece of tattered red ribbon.

““I found this. I want you to have it.””
Tessa made no move to accept the offering.
““Take it,”” Fran said. ““I understand it’s good luck to find something red. I was told that you should never walk by anything red that you see on the street. You can wear it as an amulet if you like. It’s supposed to protect you from enemies.””
Tessa’s mother, Ursula, had believed in amulets, curses and charms, yet nothing had been able to save her.
““I don’t have any enemies,”” Tessa said. She kept her voice calm even though her heart was racing. ““At least none that I know of.””
Nodding ever so slightly, Fran dropped the piece of red ribbon on Tessa’s work station. Fran was out the door before Tessa could find the courage to even ask what had brought her to the salon since it was evident she had not come to have her nails done. Tessa picked up the ribbon and ran out of the shop after Fran.
““Mrs. Hill!”” Tessa called after her. ““Take your ribbon!””
But Fran was already more than halfway down the street. If she heard Tessa, Fran chose not to answer. Tessa just watched from the doorway. It was hard to imagine what she was in such a hurry to get to, and Tessa felt almost envious about whatever gave Fran such a sense of urgency. Tessa strained for a last glimpse of Fran, but she was nowhere to be seen. Then, just as Tessa was about to turn away, she saw Fran, crossing the street against the light. The mesh shopping bag was dangling off her arm. One hand was held aloft to slow oncoming traffic, the other hand was pressed against her forehead as a visor to block out any glare as she scanned the ground for new treasures. And Tessa felt oddly relieved, as if what had been lost was now found.

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