Fire Engine Red

Sue Gano

Tonight Mama has asked me to give her a manicure; she is going out while Daddy is taking his nap. I scrub the kitchen table clean and lay out two paper towels that are still connected. This is where I line up in a row all the stuff that I need to make Mama’s nails look beautiful: Six Q-tips, a couple of Kleenexes, a wooden stick with a small point to push her skin back, the lotion that smells like roses, and a fingernail file. Off to the side I lay out one of Mama’s special handkerchiefs and on top of it, I set three different kinds of fingernail polish for her to choose from.

Mama and I spend a lot of time together in the kitchen. I help her get pots and pans from the cupboards when she can’t leave the stove and at Christmas time we bake sugar cookies that are shaped like stars and reindeers. When they are cool we decorate them with the frosting that Mama makes from scratch. One, two, three drops of food coloring in each bowl turns the white frosting into all kinds of pretty colors. Blue is my favorite and when Mama’s back is turned I stick my finger into the bowl scooping up some frosting for a taste, then quickly wipe it off on my shirt. Fingers in the frosting are a no no.

Mama sits down across from me at the table, lights a cigarette, and turns on the radio, twisting the dial until she finds some music she likes. I put her soft right hand into a bowl of warm, soapy water and with her other hand she smokes and drinks her beer. As I reach for the fluffy washcloth I am going to use to dry her hand, she starts to sing:

Craaaaazy. I’m craaaaazy for feelin’ so loneleeeeeee.
I’m craaaaazy, craaaaaazy for feelin’ so bluuuuuuue.

I look up at Mama and watch her while she smokes and sings, her head titled back like a movie star, she blows the smoke straight up toward the ceiling. I watch it float higher and higher and wonder if it can make it to the tippy top. Mama gives me her hand and I carefully dry it off while her other hand goes into the soapy water. I am careful not to let any water splash on the floor tiles, which are white with black dots.

Mama says the color on the kitchen walls is yellow, sunshine yellow. Once a year to scrub the walls and ceiling she carries a pail of water up the wood ladder with all the colors of our rooms sprinkled on it, and she climbs up and up, stopping when she is close to the top, the legs of the ladder shaking as she goes. She yells at me from up above to sit on the first step to keep it still. I hurry over and push my bottom against the step, while dirty water drips down on my head and back. I always want to do a good job for Mama.

Mama’s fingers are as cool and smooth as the popsicles I like to eat in the summer. They are long and thin and I love to touch them. I gently rub the lotion that smells like roses onto her fingers and with the wooden stick, gently push back the skin near the bottom of her nails until I see the half-moon Mama always talks about. The room fills up with smoke and I work quietly while Mama sings:

Fraaaaankkkkie and meeeeeeee were loverrrrrrs
Oh Lordy how we did looooooove.

I trim Mama’s nails carefully, making sure I don’t get too close to her skin and then I file the edges until they are smooth across and each finger looks like the next finger as close as I can.

“Get me another beer, Honey,” Mama says in her soft Saturday night voice. I rush over to the fridge and find her beer next to my bottle of Orange Crush that Mama says I can have tonight with my popcorn. She tells me to open it; she doesn’t want to mess up her nails. I hold on to the can with one hand and pull as hard as I can on the tab with the other. The air rushes out and beer spill over the sides. I look up at Mama, she doesn’t like any of her beer to be wasted, but she is in a good mood tonight and uses a napkin from the table to clean it up. She pours the beer into her empty glass. “Only Drunks drink out of the can,” Mama says. I watch the bubbles in the glass fly up to the top one by one until they are all gone. Mama takes a big gulp and turns the radio dial again until she finds another song she likes. She starts humming, her shoulders moving from side to side. She lights another cigarette and I see the smoke come out of her nose like an angry bull in one of my favorite cartoons. She smiles her pretty smile. I like it when Mama is happy.

When all my work preparing her fingers is done it is time for Mama to decide on the polish color. Tonight she chooses Fire Engine Red. With the brush spread out like a fan, I slowly add the bright red color to her pinkie until I fill it all in. Some polish gets on her skin and I use the Q-tips to quickly wipe it away before it dries.  One down, nine more to go, with each nail I do a better and better job.  When I am done Mama holds up her hands and looks at her red nails carefully. I watch her face hoping she will think I did a good job. She smiles and says they are perfect and that she doesn’t need to get her nails done Downtown like the snooty women who think they are better than everyone else. I am so proud.

Mama takes her beer and her cigarettes and goes upstairs to change into her pretty clothes that she only wears when she goes out on a Saturday night. When she comes back down I go out to the hallway to see her. Mama is wearing her favorite blue dress with the lacey collar and matching shoes. She looks like a beautiful Princess. Putting on her coat she makes me say aloud what the Saturday night rules are: Don’t answer the door, don’t go outside, and don’t wake up Daddy for any reason. She gives me a kiss on the top of my head and stands on the other side of the door waiting for me to double lock it before she heads down the street to the Hi Time Tavern.

I quietly put away the stuff I used to make Mama’s nails beautiful. The used Q-tips and Kleenex go into the garbage can. The pointed stick, special hand cream that smells like roses and the file go into the top drawer of the bathroom cabinet. I double twist the fingernail polish bottles so they don’t drip and make a mess. They go in last. I want everything to be nice and neat for the next time.

The little child in me still sees Mama as she made her way down the front steps of the house, the click clack of her fancy shoes had its own tempo until she reached the sidewalk and was gone. It was scary to be left alone with Daddy upstairs sleeping off an afternoon drunk. I didn’t want to be the one to tell him where she was should he wake up early and I could never think fast enough under such pressure to come up with a good lie. With the lights out and a circle of pillows on the living room floor that acted as a barrier to all things scary, I would sit in the middle of them a couple of feet from the television which was at a barely audible level. There I would drink my soda and eat popcorn, my reward for being Mama’s good girl.


Sue is a Pacific Northwest writer who is currently working on a collection of personal short stories and essays. Her work has recently been featured in the September issue of Six Hens Magazine and Voice Catcher Journal. Sue has studied creative non-fiction at the Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon. She does her best thinking paddling a kayak on the peaceful Willamette River. Sue is new to Twitter. Help her get started @SueGanoWriter.