I am certain there is something out there beyond this morning’s sorting of keys, arranging of papers, disposing of assets. It is like this every day. A member of Team Filipina, almost always Lorna, appears to help me get on my socks…and we progress to the next pressing stage. Which always has to do with affairs of state. That is to say, of probate, which my attorney is desperately trying to avoid. Tom, landlord and benefactor, left his affairs in fairly good order, but not precisely legal order. One by one, I do my best to steer the ship of estate away from the rocks of judicial proceedings.
California’s Department of Motor Vehicles does its absolute best to simplify the matter of death and cars. The website spells things out in a straightforward, perfectly comprehensible way. Still, it is what it is. A person not related to me, the California authorities are to believe, would like me to now own his car. And that person, once called Tom and now reduced to minerals and bone fragments scattered about the base of a blue spruce, this very same individual is no longer able to attest to his desires. The proof lies with me. And slightly with Lorna. The two of us are puzzling over a series of forms, which when completed and submitted with a $10 check, are supposed to make Tom’s 2006 Ford Mustang my very own.
Perhaps it is the reminder of death itself that makes this fatiguing. I do not know. But when it is all over, when Lorna has completed all forms, made copies of same and wisely prevented me from posting an envelope with an insufficiency of stamps…I want out. After all, I have things to do. One of them involves depositing the largest check I have ever written for anything. The four flats I now own require work, lots of work. Which slams me up against a real-world challenge. This is a business, apartment ownership. The endeavor must not lose money. On the other hand, I cut my professional teeth, as it were, in the heyday of energy research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I remember that era, one third of a century ago, when the laboratory’s Building Envelope Project was blazing away. Insulating windows. Low-energy light sources. Heat exchangers to ventilate sealed buildings. Let us save energy and save ourselves and save our planet. A splendid effort that had my full attention. Particularly when the whole thing collided head-on with Ronald Reagan and Associates.
History. But it is my history, which makes it part of my present. Which explains why I am rather obsessed with refurbishing this building and appreciate that I have my own head-on collision just around the corner, economic reality and energy matters needing to be reconciled. But at 65 years of age, one would think this could be possible. Except that it does require alertness, some degree of worldliness and…well, at this moment, getting out of the apartment. First to the bank to make my massive deposit. Second to those guardians of matters digital, Sky Nails.
How can I not know her name? Mai is the other woman, the one I thought was the owner. But this is not Mai…too many years have gone by to simply ask her name. We are too friendly, my visits too frequent. So I fake it. The usual questions roll from my lips. How is business? Did you get away this summer? As to the usual answers. Business is obviously up. No, travel is only an occasional luxury. Vietnam is a long, expensive flight home, the woman tells me. One after another, various fluids squirt across my fingernails. My manicurist grabs the squeeze bottles with the ease and artistry of an organist. Something special, I observe as the green fluid appears. Antiseptic, the woman explains. She appears to have nipped something a bit too aggressively and is now correcting the situation.
It is so boring, this passive activity, the conversation so difficult that I easily space out. Spacing has a way of evolving into dozing. And in a somnambulant second or two damned if my relaxed right hand doesn’t slip its moorings, knocking the finger-soaking glass bowl right to the ground. Actually, right to the carpet. I am mortified but no one at Sky Nails even notices. The bowl reappears, full once again, my fingers are reimmersed. And the beat goes on. But where is it going and why? And how am I going to stay awake without some chit chat? I grasp at conversational loose ends…the travel topic being most accessible. Does she have lots of friends and family in Vietnam?
Oh…the slightest pause. My father died in the war, she says. He was a soldier, she adds. Everyone was a soldier. In an air raid, I ask? No. She shakes her head vigorously. No. The fighting was over, or almost over. He was on a ship, trying to escape. Someone shot him. Her cousin found the father’s grave in a cemetery outside of Huế. Very sad, I say. In the mirror in front of me I see the reflection of Linda, local newspaper editor. She is arriving for nail work. Linda responds to my reflected wave instantly, an alertness born of years of reporting. I motion her toward me, trapped as I am in my nail station, my gesture at the mirror carefully reverse engineered. Hi, I tell Linda, nodding at the manicurist, you have a story here. One of my first, she says lightly, heading for a pedicure chair.
It settles around me now, the knowledge that the fortuitous arrival of another storyteller has fallen flat. There is no offloading this tale. For those of us who deal in stories know that a saga is an almost physical thing. It has weight and heft, material substance, and it occupies space. This one is out, somehow, and active. Linda is ex-Newsweek, has lived all over the world, and now resides in Menlo Park like a former gunslinger who has taken up farming. As for the story, the Manicurist’s Tale, well, it resumes. We are all pilgrims, after all, making our way toward Canterbury.
Everyone help me, she says simply. My husband find me. He take me here. I been here 20 year. In Vietnam, four sisters, five brothers. She holds up her hands. She spreads her fingers. She laughs shyly, a woman in early middle-age well aware of her poor English. I love Linda, she adds. Linda and her husband, I love them both. Because this is a small burg I know the story of Linda’s husband. He died a couple of years ago, tragically, early. And how he is known to the staff of Sky Nails I can half guess. He had fingers, grew ill, Linda needed help with his nails. He landed here the same way I have.
Many people help here and in Vietnam. Help me get here and in job. This my business. I tell my children many people help me. Don’t forget. Be Rapunzel.
I nod at this, feigning comprehension. It seems rude to keep interrupting. Particularly, to keep asking her to repeat herself. I know she is not referring to the long-haired princess in the tower. But I’ve already asked about the Rapunzel bit several times. Be Rapunzel. She keeps telling her children.
Be responsible, I say, feeling divinely inspired. She nods vigorously. At this, I am relieved. The story is not finished. But it has come full circle. In the words of some indigenous peoples, it has bitten its tail. Or in another view, we have fed the story. It is satisfied now. So am I. Feeling that I had to get out, I wandered out my door aimlessly. And here I am.
Responsible. George Lakoff says that this particular quality, a sense of responsibility, is a distinctly liberal one. I appreciate his insight. He wants to fit my experience into a larger political context. Which is splendid as far as it goes. But it does not go as far as, say, the manicurist at Sky Nails. It’s a simple life lesson. Many people help. Don’t forget. Be Rapunzel.