You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Manicure Girl

Alone in the old basement barber shop she sat reading a magazine at her manicure table. Her eyes devoured the story and she lifted them reluctantly to meet a customer.

She was arrestingly pretty. She looked out quite gravely at the customer without closing her magazine. "The barber's out to lunch."

The visitor hesitated. He could not help being invited by her appearance. "I left my razors," he told her. "Do you think I could find them?"

She left her table in the corner and came along the littered marble counter. At first sight she was frankly enticing. In the out of date establishment she had the clear accent of coquettish modern New York. Any young girl might have worn that revealing dress, but in the publicity of her bare throat, a velvet band encircling it, there was the purpose of the manicure girl. Her low straight fringe had the same personal accentuation. It gave piquancy to her pointed little face and centered attention on her eyes. The customer could not help scanning her while she scanned the counter.

"He was expecting you to call for them, wasn't he?" She raised her eyes without any challenge.

They looked over the counter together. "Yes," he said. "There they are. I guess they're ready. I left them here the night his old manicure girl came to see him. Don't you remember her?"

"Oh, yes. She was back from the war. Were you here that night?”

“Yes, you were putting on your hat in the corner.”

"Oh, yes. But you didn't look at me, did you?" She made the inquiry with apparent innocence. He took the leather roll from her, amused at her naiveté. "Yes, I saw you."

"Wait," she said politely, "I'll wrap it up."

He stood near her while she poked in a drawer and started to do up the parcel with fingers surprisingly inexpert. She was not the typical hard-finished manicure girl. She bit her lip, confessing she was clumsy, and he tied the parcel himself. Her interest in it struck him as almost childlike, and decidedly envious.

"I’m so clumsy," she said. "You must do that as a regular thing." 

He laughed. "No, I'm a writer.”

Her grey eyes opened wide on him. "What do you write? Stories? Oh, I'm crazy about reading."

"Nope. I just work for a magazine."

Her entire manner changed. All her languid gravity was gone and she was plainly excited.

"Oh, I read magazines all the time. I've read half that this morning." She lifted the Top-Notch Magazine. "But I get library books too." They were at her table, and she opened one of two rather greasy volumes. "Business isn't very good," she said with mild deprecation. "Look, I'm learning all that by heart to-day." It was a volume by Will Carlton and she indicated a ballad, pages long. "A man at Asbury Park used to teach it to us. Oh, he used to read it so clear you got every word. I wish I could read like that, but he was a regular elocutionist, isn't that what you'd call him? But my eyes hurt me, I read so much. Listen, did you ever read Zane Grey? I've read everything he ever wrote. One of his books is the most beautiful book I ever knew. It tells of a rich girl that went out among the cowboys and they used to tease her. I don't care for the silly romance and all that. It's the Big Country I love to read about. That was why I got that magazine—the cowboy on the cover."

"You must spend a lot on magazines?"

"No, I get them from the stand upstairs. When the girl up there goes to a ball or anything I do her nails and then she lets me have magazines. I had two yesterday. … Do you know Gus Kramer, the auto racer? No? Well, his nephew Charlie is in Arizona. He sent a picture card from Flagstaff. He says he's mining, but the expression he used gave him away—you know. He's a cowboy! I'm reading about the West so when he comes back I'll be posted. Oh, it doesn't matter on his account, but—I don't know, I want to be up on it when he comes back."

"Don’t you go to the movies?"

"Yes, there's good things in the movies, too, when you look into them, not the love stories but the outdoor pictures. But I can't see them unless I'm way up in front. The oculist says my eyes are the worst he ever saw. One part is oblong that ought to be round. He gave me glasses, but I don't know, I can't wear them. They pinch my nose."

The man smiled. "You don't want to wear them because you're pretty. It's vanity."

"Pretty!" She was all alive. "Oh, no … Can't you sit down. Are you in a hurry? Could I see your glasses? I don't mean to be forward. Oh, everything is so clear! Too clear, though. They'd hurt my eyes. I ought to sit with my back to the light, I suppose? But I have to read. I love poetry, too. I know Poe's 'Raven' by heart, and Bryant's poems, and Maud Muller. I don't know who wrote that. I read 'Les —— Miserables?' What is it? Yes. But I like best to read of the Big Country. I was born in the city but brought up in the country—Asbury Park, New Jersey. My mother used to live there. Father died when I was three months old, and after fourteen years mother married again and he died too. I'm nineteen now."

As she talked on about herself, breathlessly communicative and eager, the 'man saw the naïve creature under the disguise of coquettish New York.

The green-shaded lamp brought out the childishness of her features. They were small and delicate and undeveloped. Her teeth were a little irregular, and when she smiled her frailness was accentuated. She was no longer a piquant city girl, neat of coiffure and coy of glance. She was just a half-formed youngster, her head swimming with fancy, her aspirations untouched, her imagination unqualified. To look pretty, that was her job. She knew that the ability to manicure was the least of her essentials. But of her effectiveness she was profoundly ignorant. What she really desired was to tell breathlessly of Hamlin Garland, Jack London, Owen Wister, Zane Grey. Relieved from the necessity of flirtation, unafraid of what she called "forwardness," she revealed the intense vicariousness that was all life meant to her, a vicariousness that took her out of that dingy basement, and chained her to that dingy basement as well.

She knew she should wear glasses. Her head ached. The world before her was a blur. She was incapable of knotting a string. But who cared?, The mere drudgery of taking care of herself, the prosaic rewards of being healthy and self-possessive, the acceptance of conscription among the homely—these she recoiled from. She was directed to allure. If she wore glasses, she would need to be competent, brisk, business-like. There was nothing in her thin blood, her small bones, her large wonder-seeing eyes, her tentative evanescent smile, her guileless dream, to form that resoluteness. In the other role she had success. It enabled her to earn a little living, or part of a little living. She did her work with mimetic art when it came to her, and for the rest loved the men that rescued heiresses in Arizona.

Her sex seemed her only reality before she spoke. Before she had finished she had gained in losing her allurement. She was a swimmer in strong currents with little knowledge and little experience, and with an innocence beyond belief. 

"Goodbye," she piped as her customer departed, "and—thank you for your advice."

This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.