Old Nail Polish

By Diana Meade

Patches of red polish clung on for dear life to fingernails that were bit back, evidence of better days, gnawed away bit by bit, until the raw cuticles were more blood red than the stuff that came out of the bottle.

“Would you like some more iced tea?” she asked, holding the sweating pitcher away from her narrow body, angling it at me, the chewed nails at the end of her fingers the only specs of color against the gray of the unpainted house, the gray of her used-to-be blue dress, washed in water I’m sure she boiled on the cook stove.

“I’ve got some cold cornbread and I could slice you a tomato if you’re hungry.”  She chased a stray bit of hair that had escaped a torn strip of fabric she had doubled and tied at the back of her neck.

 “Sorry, but that’s about it.  Them hands eat like a swarm of locust.  I don’t get the dishes done good ‘til its time to get supper started.”  She looked like she had more to say about the subject, but stopped herself before she revealed too much to a stranger, even though I had on my most solicitous face.

“That’s my husband out there at the end of the row.  He’ll be up here in a little while, soon as he notices you.  Or I could go to the fence and try to holler him up, if you want me to.”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” I said with a wave of my hand, like I was the queen of the front porch, and even though she was here to serve me, I was going to let her off easy, cause I was a benevolent monarch. “If you don’t mind, it would be a kindness for me to have another glass and sit here in the shade until I catch my breath.”

The fact that I had just walked down miles of East Texas back road to get to my throne reminded me that I had to make sure I got to continue sitting on it, or I was going to have to walk all the way back to where I came from.

“I got a late start or I’d been here sooner and it wouldn’t have been so hot.”  I pulled a dainty handkerchief from the pocket of my jacket and dabbed at my upper lip, as if that was the only place I was perspiring.  I had to force myself to keep my arms at my side, so the sweat stains wouldn’t show.  A queen must keep up appearances.

“I don’t know how you farmers stand it out in this heat.  I’d take my hat off to you, if I had one.”

She was focused on the hankie, allowing herself to stare at me without lowering her eyes.  She was trying to put the clues together about me.  She sat down in a straight-backed chair across from me, folded her coarse hands in her lap while letting out a tired sigh.  She said, “You’d be cooler, if you wore a hat.  Did nobody ever tell you that?”

“Yes ma’am.  My mother did lots of times, but I’ve lost mine somewhere and I haven’t replaced it yet.”  I wasn’t about to tell her that what I was wearing, even down to my pink silk drawers was all the clothes I had to my name.  Every stitch of clothing, including my hat, was at the bottom of Boggy Slough, buried in a watery grave along with Buster Morrison, a giant of a man, who had pretended to be my husband for the last time.

“We don’t get that much company from town way out here, Miss,” her voice faded off at the end as if she was trying to resist making the statement an inquiry.  She was doing the best she could not to ask me to state my business.

She wasn’t getting nothing out of me, though.  I learned a long time ago that bad news is best said coming all at once.  No sense letting the cat out of the bag until I could see which way the weeds was blowing anyhow.  I needed a place to lay low, and out here in Hicksville looked like as good a place as any.

“Your flowers are real pretty,” I said, getting back out of the rocking chair to lean over an old dishpan full of red dirt and some pink petunias.  “What do you call them?”

“Petunias.  And them ones in the bed out front is four clocks.”

I just might be the stupidest person this woman had ever met.  The look on her face was a mixture of disbelief and exasperation.

“You know about four clocks, don’t you?” She spoke slowly as if I were a foreigner.  Maybe I am.

I guess if she thought I was dumb enough to not know what petunias were, I might as well be dumb enough to not know about four o’clocks.

“No, ma’am, what about 'em? They seem more bountiful up close than they were out there from the road.”

She took a deep breath and prepared herself to educate the poor city idiot, when her husband waved from the other side of the fence and began making his way toward us.

“Four o’clocks are called that because that’s the time of day that they bloom.  Their little buds stay shut up tight all day.  Then, when you’ve given up that they’re going to let you see what they’ve got, they surprise you, right up in the heat of the day.” 

She was watching me like a bird of prey on a fence post, after a rabbit.   I almost gulped on my iced tea.  Was she really referring to me?  Or am I giving mind reading credit to a countrywoman, who knows nothing about me, but what sits before her. 

“At four o’clock, most people, and animals too, want to quit and lay up, and rest.”  Then, she glanced over at her husband coming closer.  She leaned forward and whispered, “ I know I do.”

Then she raised her voice back to normal and continued.  “Not them.  They bloom right out despite everything.  Now why do you reckon Mother Nature seen fit to make a flower do that?” 

“Mother Nature is a mystery,” I nodded, sagely.

And it was a mystery to me why I thought I could pull the wool over these people’s eyes.  This woman may not know how to order dinner in some of the hotel dinning rooms I had been in, but she was sizing me up and despite my apparent lack of horticultural skills, I was getting the feeling that I better have a good story or she’d send me back down that dusty road without any cornbread or a slice of tomato.