The Pedicure
by Elaine Fowler Palencia

After Dolores’s husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack across his desk at the Farm Bureau, she had to make a list of reasons to get out of bed or she would have stayed there all day. Not that she missed him particularly, but now there was no structure to her life. Monday the list said, Get a pedicure

This was the fault of the lipstick she’d bought on impulse at CVS a month after Ernest died, a tube of Naughty Red on clearance. She’d never worn lipstick, Ernest said lipstick was for hussies, and she had never wanted to. But standing there in her usual black stretch slacks, white tee shirt, and beige Easy Sprit wedge sandals, she had suddenly been hungry for color. After wearing it for several days, lightly applied, she’d started thinking about pedicures.

She’d never had a pedicure, but had always wanted one. That had gotten her in the car and five miles down the road to a nail shop in the Kearns Creek strip mall. Now here she was with ten Va-Va-Vermilion toenails, sitting at the drying kiosk with her feet under a vent of cool air, reading an article in her AARP magazine about travel tips for seniors. Not that she had ever traveled much of anywhere, or was planning to. Ernest had preferred to fish in a borrow pit two miles from their home. She was content with her knitting group and volunteer job at the food bank. Besides, she had her memories of the cruise to Alaska with Great Aunt Esther right before she met Ernest, when she was twenty-six. One afternoon, as they were standing at the rail of the ship’s upper deck, watching a sun-sparkled glacier slide by, with a deep blue sky overhead, Aunt Esther put a crepey hand over hers on the railing and said, “Take it all in, Dorrie. This may well be the high point of your life.” And it had been. 

“We’re a team,” Ernest liked to say during their three-year engagement, during which he was saving money for a house down payment. “No more, no less.”

After a somewhat turbulent childhood spent keeping out of the way of her warring parents and delinquent siblings, being the subservient half of a team sounded safe to Dolores, and Ernest’s (well, she had had to face it) dullness proved a virtue in that regard. But since his death, she had begun to wonder about roads not taken. 

She was deep into a consideration of travel package scams when she became aware, from a charged feeling in the air, that someone nearby was talking about her. 

“Rita Hayworth?”


“Lady Gaga?”



“Yes! Marilyn! Marilyn could wear it.”

Two young women were sitting on the other side of the kiosk, their hands under the fingernail vents, and both were staring at her in a speculative way. They had long, sleek hair, black and shiny as coal, and creamy skin--like camellia petals, thought Dolores, surprised to have such an original thought. The pair were expertly made up, dressed in form-fitting, long-sleeved black dresses, and had extremely narrow bodies. They reminded her—and here was another original thought--of two blacksnakes balancing on their tails. They looked very much alike—an older and younger sister, perhaps. 

The younger one raised her eyebrows at Dolores, as if asking a question.

Dolores smiled cautiously and said, “Do you mean Marilyn Monroe?”

“It’s your lipstick color,” said the smaller, younger one. “What is the name of it?”

“I don’t remember,” lied Dolores, and self-consciously pressed her lips together. 

“What brand?”

“Revlon?” Dolores guessed.

“Is it matte?”

“I don’t know,” said Dolores, feeling cornered.

The taller, older girl narrowed her eyes in a way that made her look angry. “It’s a satin finish, not matte. Marilyn could definitely wear it.”

“What if she dyed her hair?” the younger one asked the older, cutting her eyes at Dolores. “Would she look like Marilyn?”

“Hmmm,” said the older one, and wrinkled her nose. 

“No, I wouldn’t,” said Dolores. Were they making fun of her? She was thirty years older than Marilyn had been when she died, and she looked like the plain, brown-haired mouse she had always been, except that recently she had begun to go gray. In fact, Mousie was one of Ernest’s nicknames for her, along with her childhood pet name, Dorrie.

“You could try it. We love Marilyn!” exclaimed Younger Sister.

“Really, it’s our father who loves her,” said Older Sister. “He has a big picture of her in the living room. We grew up with it. Marilyn is wearing a fur coat and not much else. What is that white fur?”

“Ermine?” Dolores offered.

“That’s it,” said Younger Sister. “But he had to put the picture in the closet. He can’t look at it now.”

“Not now!” agreed the other.

“Why not?” Dolores had to ask.

Older Sister said, “Because sometimes at night she comes out of the frame. Our parents can hear her heels clacking in the upstairs hall. It’s like she’s looking for something.”

“We’ve heard it, too,” said Younger Sister, nodding. 

Dolores checked the wall clock. She had at least five minutes to go before her toenails were dry. How could she get away from these girls? The owner of the salon was restocking work stations and the nail technicians and customers were all absorbed with the work of the place.

The young women stood up, like origami birds unfolding. They had an air of being from elsewhere, but maybe they were local. She didn’t actually keep up with how young people looked and dressed.

The younger girl held up her hands to examine her nails, which were long, square-cut on the ends, and painted bright purple. “Our father loves Marilyn, but our grandfather loves Elvis. He goes to Graceland all the time and takes our grandmother. Have you been, lady?”

“Yes,” Dolores admitted. She had gone on a bus with her knitting group several years before. To her surprise, Elvis’s kitchen cabinets had been very like hers.

“He had a twin. Didn’t he have a twin who died? Where is the twin buried?” inquired Older Sister and shook her head. “That was so sad.”

“Elvis died on the 8th or 9th of June,” said the other to no one. “We cried and cried.”

“He died on August 16, 1977,” Dolores bristled. She had always felt that Elvis would still be alive if he had met someone like herself when he was young, someone caring, responsible, and willing to stay in the shadows. And besides, they had a special connection. Dolores had had a twin sister who died at birth, of whom her parents never spoke. She’d learned about her from Great Aunt Esther on the Alaska trip. She added, “Elvis and his brother were born on January 8, 1935. The brother is buried in Tupelo. I expect you two weren’t born when Elvis died.” Ernest had called Elvis “that greaseball.”

Older Sister said, “Grandfather named his daughter Priscilla and his granddaughter Lisa Marie, like the plane.” She turned to Younger Sister. “Our nails are dry.”

The young women stood up, like origami birds unfolding. They had an air of being from elsewhere, but maybe they were local. She didn’t actually keep up with how young people looked and dressed.

Older Sister said, “Maybe we’ll see you again.” They tittered and cut their eyes at each other, giving Dolores the eerie impression that they were sharing one mind. 

On black stiletto heels they pranced out of the shop, apparently without paying. One always paid on the way out. She looked around the busy room. No one seemed concerned.

When her toenails were dry, Dolores walked down the strip mall to CVS, where she had called in a prescription for her beta-blocker. She felt conspicuous because of her Va-Va-Vermilion toes, but no one seemed to notice. 

The prescription was ready and the co-pay was low, so she paid cash for the pills and for a pack of cinnamon gum. When she turned away from the counter with her purchases, the two girls from the nail shop were standing shoulder to shoulder a few feet away.

“What are you doing here?” demanded Younger Sister. They laughed, high and silvery.

Dolores had not seen them outside when she left the nail shop. They had not been present when she entered the pharmacy, which was arranged so that one had to walk past the head of all the aisles to get to the prescription pick-up counter. 

“Well, see you around!” cried Older Sister as Dolores moved past them. “Don’t forget, Dolores, you’re special.”

Dolores turned. “How did—?”

The two were halfway down the aisle, moving quickly away.

“—you know my name?” Dolores finished in a whisper.

On the drive home, Dolores stopped at the Mexican bakery to buy rolls for breakfast, a   new activity she’d picked up from Meg in the knitting group and one Ernest would not have tolerated. Her scratch biscuits were all the bread he would eat of a morning. What strange girls, she thought, glad that “pedicure” would not come up on her list again for a long time, if ever. Had they overheard a nail tech say her name? She did not like being made fun of and why else would such creatures fool with her, Dorrie the Mouse?

When she got home, she parked the Honda Civic in the garage, placed the rolls in the bread drawer in the kitchen, and hurried to the den to watch Jeopardy! As she had planned, she was just in time for the beginning of the show. “What is San Francisco?” she answered correctly, when asked about the location of an earthshaking event in 1906, but missed the next two questions. 

During the first commercial, she went to the kitchen for a glass of iced tea. She filled a glass with ice from the ice maker in the refrigerator and poured in sweet tea from the turquoise Fiesta Ware pitcher that had been her mother’s. As she picked up her to-do list from the counter, she heard the front door open.

Her heart lurched. She always kept the door locked.

There came a shuffle-tap sound and then there in the doorway to the hall stood J.O. Benson from across the road. In his wide overalls, he filled the entry. Dolores wasn’t fooled by the cane, as she’d seen him clobber a stray dog with it. J.O. was still a powerful man despite the fall that had messed up his left knee. He and Ernest had farmed together some years back. His wife Sukie was confined to a wheelchair since losing a leg to the sugar and had gotten enormously fat.

“How did you get in?” Dolores quavered.

J.O. grinned like a possum and held up the key she kept under a flower pot on the porch. “Afternoon, Missy. You doin’ all right today?”

“I’m fine.” From the den came an audience roar. Something big had happened on Jeopardy!

“Thought I’d check up on you. Ernest wanted me to.”

Dolores doubted that. “You could have knocked.”

He hooked his cane over his forearm and took a step into the room. “It must get awful lonely over here. The Lord, look at those toes. Pretty widow woman like yourself don’t need to be alone.”

Doris moved away from the counter, nearer the door to the garage. “Mr. Benson, you need to leave.”

“Now, don’t be that way. You been fixing yourself up, so you must be lookin’. Nothing wrong with lookin’.” He grinned again.

Don’t cry, don’t cry, Dolores told herself. “You shouldn’t be here. Please leave.”

He shook his head.  “Naw, I don’t think so. Come on now, I won’t bite. In fact, I can be mighty nice.”

Overhead, something thumped, as if a chair had fallen over.

J.O.’s eyes went to the ceiling. “Somebody up there?”

“Yes,” she said, trying to sound bold, but thinking, Good Lord, what now?


“I don’t know,” she finished weakly. 

“Well, we’ll just see what you’ve been up to,” snapped J.O., and pivoted for the closed staircase, which came down into the entrance hall. 

Stumping up the steps, he banged his cane on the wall. “Who’s up there?”  he bawled. “Show yourself!”

There came a click-clacking, like someone running across the upstairs hall in high heels. J.O. shouted something, which was drowned out by a chorus of high, girlish laughter. He screamed, a horrible sound, like a cat being strangled. Dolores heard him tumble down the stairs, the cane clattering ahead of him and skittering across the entrance hall. 

J.O. rolled into view, face frozen, mouth agape. He crawled to the straight chair Ernest had sat in to change from his house shoes to street shoes and pulled himself up to a standing position. Retrieving his cane with shaking hands, he gave Dolores a wild-eyed look.

“You witch!” he shouted, and hustled out of the house, slamming the door.

It appeared that Jeopardy! was over. Moving quietly and carefully, like when Ernest was asleep in his recliner, Dolores slipped upstairs. She looked in all three rooms, the bathroom, and the closets; but no one was there.  

She never saw the Sisters again, although she continued to get pedicures as needed, toning her shade down to Pretty in Pink, which was more her. One afternoon at a garage sale she bought a framed photo of Marilyn Monroe in the white sundress from The Seven Year Itch. This she placed on the mantel with a scented candle that she lit on Marilyn’s birthday. Each year for Christmas and her own birthday, she bought two DVDs, one of a Marilyn movie and one of an Elvis, all of which she watched with pleasure. With everything else she had to do, knitting mittens for the unfortunate, watching Jeopardy!, and keeping up her property, she felt she was set for structure.

Elaine Fowler Palencia
has published six books of fiction; four poetry chapbooks; a short literary monograph, The Literary Heritage of Hindman Settlement School; and a scholarly book about her great-great grandfather, On Rising Ground: The Life and Civil War Letters of John M. Douthit, 52nd Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Mercer University Press). From Morehead, Kentucky, she lives in Champaign Illinois.

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