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Fake Nails

I was a retired teacher and live-aboard in Seattle. Now I'm back to teaching in a remote area of New Mexico.


When I was a child, I was obsessed with long, red fingernails, like movie stars had.

Also, my grandmother, who was a typical grandmother in most ways—short gray hair, house dresses, a round figure—had long, pointed red fingernails. As a child, I would often hold her hand and run my fingertip over the smooth expanses of each nail. So beautiful!

My obsession continued into adulthood. My nails, however, are thin, peeling, and brittle. Every once in a while, I can grow them out, but it never lasts long. In my twenties, I still considered having long, red fingernails a worthy goal.

Then along came the 80s and acrylic nails!

For $50 dollars once, and $30 every three weeks, I could have the nails of my dreams. Though I was frequently broke during those days and had to scramble to pay my rent, I considered acrylic nails a necessary expense, for a while.

Even I have some common sense, though. When it came down to eating or nails, the nails had to go.

But times got better. I got married and earned more money. Together my husband and I made more than I had ever hoped to have. Acrylic nails were cheap then, too. Sometimes as low as $20 for a set of nails at the mall. But I wanted a standing appointment. I wanted to have someone I knew hold my hand and file and grind my nails every three weeks. I wanted to gossip. I didn’t want to be in full view of every shopper in the mall. And weirdly, secretly, I wanted to pay more!

And then I found Carrie

She and a friend had opened a tiny beauty salon in a converted garage. The friend did hair and Carrie did nails. The place was small and private. I had a standing appointment, and they both knew all the good gossip. And Carrie charged much more than the mall, fulfilling my secret desire.

I learned a lot about Carrie and her life and grew to admire her quite a bit. Carrie had been a self-described “town drunk.” She had suffered extreme abuse as a child and as an adult. Her addiction to alcohol had humiliated and impoverished her. Somehow, against the odds, Carrie had gotten sober, gone to cosmetology school, and established a successful career. She had a daughter, Missy, now in high school. Missy was a delightful girl, charming and pretty, but, also, as children of alcoholics tend to be for survival purposes, very manipulative. She was frequently in trouble at school, and during my appointments, Carrie often got phone calls from teachers complaining about Missy’s behavior.

Being a teacher myself, I was impressed with how Carrie handled those calls. She was never defensive. She asked for more information so she could understand exactly what happened. She never got angry or seemed frustrated. “I know,” she would say, softly and kindly, several times during the call.

Carrie took responsibility for her daughter’s problems, blaming herself. She knew she had neglected and abused Missy when she was drinking, and her guilt and remorse were overwhelming, but she did not let Missy off the hook, either. On several occasions, I was present when Carrie confronted Missy about her behavior. Carrie was always calm and soft spoken, but, always, there were consequences for Missy.

“You’re grounded for a week.”

“You may not attend the concert this weekend.”

“You may not call or visit friends until your grades improve.”

“You must apologize to your teacher.”

Missy’s angry comeback was usually along the lines of

“If you weren’t a goddamn drunk…”

“You abused me!”

“It’s your fault!”

And Carrie’s response was always calm, quiet, and kind. “I know. I know.” Then she would repeat the consequence. And it happened as she said.

During one afternoon appointment, when we were alone in the salon, Carrie told me about one of the times she had gone to rehab and failed.

She left rehab that afternoon and went to the bar that evening. I could see it all as she spoke. Entering the bar, the lights dim and soft, a murmur of quiet conversation in the background. So soothing, especially after rehab with its fluorescent lights and hard truths. Her friends were there! “Carrie! Hey Carrie! Where ya’ been? Lemme buy ya’ a drink!”

And Carrie had a plan. She now knew how to continue going to the bar without problems. Non-alcoholic beer! She ordered an O’Doul’s and set the place to laughing. The bartender had a smirk on her face as she delivered it. How many times had someone come into the bar right after rehab and ordered a non-alcoholic beer, a coke, grapefruit juice, or some other “virgin” cocktail and been drunk by the end of the evening? Carrie did not disappoint. After two O’Doul’s she ordered a Budweiser. The hilarity in the bar grew, along with the smirk on the bartender’s face, now accompanied by an eye-roll. Then everyone was buying her drinks. The night turned into a blackout, the blackout into another year of drinking, another year of being the town drunk.

By the time Carrie finished her story, she was no longer working on my nails, just holding my hand gently. We sat quietly for a moment. You see, during my earlier, lean financial times, I had taken a summer job. “Oh, Carrie,” I said, “I was the bartender that night.”

Her touch on my hand was gentle, her voice as calm and kind as always.

“I know,” she said.


The names in this narrative have been changed.

© 2020 Lee A Barton

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