In today’s New Voices, Joy Guo explores the beginning days of the national lockdown in “An Essential Service.” Accompanying her mother on her house-call nail service appointments, the narrator of “An Essential Service” experiences first hand all her mother does and deals with to support the family. Guo’s voice is sharp and earnest, with a critical eye turned toward the social strata that became more obvious during the heart of the pandemic.
It wasn’t hard, painting someone’s toenails, that was what I had learned from watching Ma. You started at a corner of the nailbed and worked your way outwards with short, quick, exacting strokes. Like layering on feathers.
It was still dark when we finished breakfast and Ma packed what we needed for the day—oily smock and slippers, two masks, my Hello Kitty suitcase with the bum wheel. Inside the suitcase were nail polish, remover, hand towels, clippers, cotton pads, a foot buffer with removable pads. “Come on,” she said, waving away the grey, queasy look on my face from being woken up abruptly. Ba would never have approved of Ma taking me with her on these trips, but as soon as I darted around his name, she said, “Go right ahead, tell him,” biting off the end of the sentence. Besides, what could Ba do, marooned in Beijing for the foreseeable future?
In the car, Ma told me to prep the polish for the day’s appointments. The selection was mostly moldy yellows and greens, only a handful of nudes and pinks, one coarse red, like the inside of a secret. It was all that Ma had time to grab before the salon closed. Most of the polishes had gone slack, separating into two distinct layers of pigment and oil. I thwacked each tube against my palm, the way Ma had done so many times. Still, the tiny, bottled horizons clung to the glass.
“Remember,” Ma said, more to herself than to me. “Let’s do this fast. In and out.”
I was old enough to understand a stay-at-home order and how we were disobeying it. When it was announced on the seven o’clock news, Ma scribbled down a bunch of names and numbers, made calls all evening, double-checked our Camry’s tires. By the next morning, she had a plan, one that carved out a role for me to play. “You can do your homework in the car,” she insisted. That was Ma’s way, ignoring details like my tendency towards motion sickness, in favor of hurtling towards the bigger picture, which was that we had to eat. Plus, as she explained, the odds were good a customer wouldn’t stiff her on a tip if I was with her, standing right there in front of them in my unbrushed hair and egg-stained overalls.
We did our usual loop through Rockland, Westchester, Putnam, Duchess. Something about Ma’s clenched jaw, her fingers drumming against the steering wheel, made me think of the other technicians. The aunties who spoke Malaysian or Fujianese, who called me Cindy’s girlie and fished out stale candies from their pockets. The last time I was at the salon, Ma was training two new girls, one from the Philippines, the other from Texas. Together, their English amounted to “Square or diamond?” and “Which free scrub you like?” Ma had them practice for hours on the plastic molds. The Texan’s hands shook badly, sending wild streaks of color against the unforgiving white. Watching her struggle, the others were quiet, but I knew what they were thinking.