Money speaks sense in a language all people understand.” — Aphra Behn
by michael c. keith
Lotus Nails was an ever-expanding enterprise with at least a dozen chairs and as many manicurists. Billie Seymour recalled when it was half the size, and how much she had liked the intimacy of it back then. They surely are industrious people, she thought, taking her accustomed seat near the front of the parlor.
“Hello Miss Seymour. You look very nice today. I like your outfit. It pretty,” greeted Sovann Lim, a diminutive, middle-aged Cambodian man, with a formidable mole on his upper left cheek.
It was exactly how he had greeted Billie every time over the four years she’d been his regular customer. His English was barely intelligible, so conducting a conversation with him was very difficult. Billie tried the first few times he did her nails, and then she all but gave up. It just took too much of her energy to try.
He’s been in this country for years and still can’t speak decent English, mulled Billie, reaching for a magazine in the hope he would not attempt to engage her in further feeble conversation. That was her regular strategy, and it had worked well enough.
During recent visits, she had become convinced that Sovann and his fellow manicurists were talking about her, indeed possibly making fun of her. From the corner of her magazine, she would spy them looking her way while they chattered in their cacophonous tones. A chorus of shrill laughter would suddenly erupt, and they would quickly turn away from her as she lowered her magazine. What do they find so amusing about me?” she wondered. I know I’m a large woman. Anyone would appear huge next to their scrawny bodies. But what is so amusing to make them laugh like that? Maybe it’s not me. Could be something else, of course. But I don’t think so . . .
* * *
Billie’s suspicions finally got the better of her, and she decided to take action. The next time she visited Lotus Nails, she recorded their conversations on her smart phone while having both her finger-and toenails trimmed and polished. She had decided to take it to an Asian language professor at the local college and pay him to interpret it.
“Yes, I do understand Cambodian, but I usually don’t translate private conversations,” said Professor Kim.
“It’s really not private. They knew I was recording them. I’m just fascinated with the sounds of the language and want to start understanding it. I wish State U. offered Cambodian. I’d love to take a course in it.”
“Well, I wish they would, too. I’ve been trying to convince the administration to offer an introductory course in Cambodian, because there’s a sizeable population of them in our community. They own many local businesses, so it would make sense to offer it. Perhaps you could write a request to the dean?”
“Of course, I’d be happy to. I’d be the first to enroll.”
“So what is it you want me to listen to?”
The professor wrote out a translation on a lined pad as Billie played her recording for him.
“Nothing very exciting, I’m afraid. Although they certainly are enthusiastic.”
“What are they talking about, professor?”
“Business and investment plans. Apparently they’re pooling their resources to purchase property. Leave it to immigrants to act like true American capitalists. These folks are very ambitious.”
“That’s all? Nothing else. Why are they laughing so much?”
“Excited by their ideas, I guess. Oh, one of the women did make reference to you.”
“Ah ha. What did she say?”
“Something about liking your outfit.”
* * *
Billie left the professor feeling dissatisfied with the outcome. The Cambodians were so animated. Too animated to be talking about such dull topics as real estate. And why did they laugh when I looked at them? And what about professor Kim, huh? Another inscrutable Oriental. And he probably knows them. It’s a cabal against this country’s real citizens.
Still troubled, Billie decided not to return to Lotus Nails and soon located a parlor operated by non-Asians. On her fourth visit there, a newspaper article caught her attention.
A local business group has announced plans to build a shopping
mall in the vicinity of East Avenue and Torrance Boulevard. They
indicate that two major national retailers will anchor the proposed
Oh, that will be great, thought Billie. We need something like that, and it will be so convenient to where I live. I wonder where it will be exactly?
A letter she received a month later told her just where the new mall would be located. Even her neighbors could hear her screams.
“My apartment complex is being torn down to make room for the mall!” she blurted, reading further. “The land was purchased by . . .!” at this point, Billie slumped into a chair. “by the Lotus Corporation?”
Billie tossed the eviction notice to the floor and leapt to her feet again, her fists waving wildly in the air.
“I knew they were talking about me!” she bellowed at the top of her lungs. “I just knew it!”
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes stories. www.michaelckeith.com. More from Michael can be found in the Vault of Smoke and at www.michaelckeith.com.