Fake Nails and a Gun

Kristen does my acrylic nails one night, and after that she’s pointing a .45-caliber handgun at my chest, saying, “That’s how we get him.” Except she gets stuck on the thuh-thuh-thuh-That, her dark eyes bulging out like a frog choking down large prey. Her mouth thrashes violently, and I freeze while she pushes percussively through the words, pink color racing into her gaunt, freckled cheeks. I want to scream, That!, but after years of attending speech class for my troublesome Rs, I know better. Those marbles in my mouth that showed me the only way out was through. She needs this. To wrestle with her tongue as the prolonged soft thuh finds stability with the curt chop of the at, and the fully formed word spews forth into the air. Or maybe it’s because the gun is pointed at my heart—my body goose-fleshed, core-shucked, baby hairs erect—that I feel empathy. She finishes the sentence with a flourish of her black cape and the words how we get him come spilling out of her mouth like a warm braid of whiskey into a tumbler.

Jake will arrive in ten minutes with his date. We’re standing on the second floor of the Ad Arts Building, an art colony at the end of a cul-de-sac, alongside the railroad tracks, smack-dab in the industrial crosshairs of Santa Ana. When a double-engine train chugs by, the windows bang and rattle; sills fill with grit. Particles seep in through the window frames and under the door jambs, agitating warm air molecules. Robert’s capacious loft is what we artists call “The Penthouse Suite.” He’s the only one in the building with his own bathroom and shower. Such luxury! The rest of us heathens have to share, and lately there’s been a mysterious someone we’ve dubbed “The Booger Man” who leaves globs of mixed media on the tiled stall.

Kristen is wearing a black leotard and cape, her red hair bleached platinum and straw-like, her scarecrow figure standing stick still in front of Robert’s bulky metal sculptures and a painting that looks like someone Pollock-ed on, then wiped with a tissue that got stuck. I have on black patent leather shorts and grip a pair of ice-cold police issue handcuffs. Marla is wrapped in some witchy outfit that smells smoky from the drags she takes off of an emptied Bic pen stuffed with a machine-rolled Top tobacco cigarette; and Robert, the owner of the gun—the one that’s been in his mouth on dark wooded nights where campfire logs glowed amber and reptilian—is sporting a black turtleneck and slacks. This isn’t a fashion show. It’s an organized hit.

Except the gun isn’t loaded. We know this. At least, that’s what Robert says. But there’s something about a gun pointed at your chest that makes you question whether you’ve lived a full life. The unwritten novel. Half-finished paintings. And how can you become immortal when you don’t have a body of work? At least you’re an organ donor. You could help someone with your zombie kidney, spleen, or liver. Forget the heart. If that gun goes off, the ticker is done. But with your organs in circulation, maybe, just maybe, it would be okay to die a little. The thing about guns, though, especially when they’re in another person’s hand, is that even when the magazine has been removed, you can’t help but wonder if there’s a bullet in the chamber.

When Jake gets here in a few minutes, he’s supposed to be bringing his cousin who is visiting from Jake’s hometown in Louisiana. The fact that Jake’s screwing her isn’t lost on me, and not on him either. When I brought it up earlier in the day, he said, “I know, isn’t it taboo? She’s my cousin,” he smiled slyly, “but she’s cute.”

“When can we meet her?” I asked.

Jake scraped his wet palms down his paint pants and said he never planned on bringing her by the art colony because he was afraid of how everyone would treat her—she’s conservative and not used to “weird people,” whatever that means. However, with some prodding, he agreed to stop by after their dinner date and before the movies. Kristen came up with the plan to freak them out while doing my acrylic nails.

Dip your brush into a bowl filled with raw monomer, tap any excess onto the side so you don’t oversaturate your brush, then dab the powder to form a perfect acrylic bead. Start above your cuticle and apply a smooth base to your freshly adhered acrylic tips. To create a shiny topcoat, finish with a thin encapsulation layer of acrylic mixture. Keyword: Thin. You don’t want to add bulk to your nail.

Kristen explained all this without stuttering. Amidst dizzying fumes, she repeated my statement by turning it into a question. “He’s afraid to bring her by?” Pausing with the acrylic brush in her hand, she said we should scare Jake’s cousin when she comes over by acting totally crazy—just like Jake expects us to be. But for some reason, she said it with vengeance.

With my nails still wet, Kristen and I ventured to the shared bathroom. We found Marla hunched over a Folger’s coffee can, burning her journal pages, and told her about the plan. Marla took a drag off her Bic pen and reassured us that Jake deserved it. Fifteen years older than me, Marla was kind of a mother figure, so I didn’t think to ask why; but I knew Robert would donate his gun to the cause because he had a crush on me. A week earlier, he’d taken me to the gun range to shoot his .45, cupping his large hands around mine. I’d learned how to hold the gun with both hands and squeeze the trigger, felt the power of the gun’s kick.

Two stories up, “The Penthouse Suite” sits over the carport with a view of the desolate parking lot. We gaze out the window in our costumes, moonbeams illuminating white lines floating on a sea of black, and as soon as we see Jake’s truck creep into the parking lot, we crouch down. Shhh… Kristen whispers as though Jake could hear us. We kill the lights, get into place, and we’re so quiet that we heed the gentle ticking of the wall clock and whiff the rotting lettuce in the iguana’s cage. Kristen stands on one side of the doorway, Robert on the other; I’m catty-corner to Kristen, and Marla is in the distance beside a group of candles flickering burnt smudges onto the walls. I listen to the heavy tread of them taking the stairs, neither clomp nor click-clack, something more of a stutter, almost a tap-tap-tap-pause, the rap of acrylic nails on a table. It’s all coming together and I reflect on a moment ago, when Kristen was pointing Robert’s .45-caliber gun at my chest, saying, thuh-thuh-thuh-That’s how we get him, and I can’t help but wonder why she said get him and not get her or them, and whether there’s a bullet in the chamber.

The door swings open and Jake struts in, peering through the darkness. Kristen springs out of the shadows to his left side and points the gun at Jake’s temple, causing him to duck and grimace as the unthinkable happens—she pulls the trigger. Click! Jake’s shoulders shoot up to his ears, and I wonder if he just shit himself because I surely would have. Kristen wasn’t supposed to pull the trigger. Just wave the gun around all crazy like Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction. My stomach hollows and my handcuffs jangle to the concrete floor.

 “Good one!” Jake smiles too wide and takes a sharp U-turn back out the door. “But you didn’t get us.” A former Marine, his spidey senses probably tingled when we killed the lights, and he told his cousin to wait in the car. “And you’re not meeting her—ever!”

At the window, we watch Jake climb into his truck and start the engine. It idles. As they pull out of the parking lot, red brake lights flash and the truck stops. A head of wavy brown hair spins around in the passenger seat and looks out the rear window. The cousin must’ve learned about the prank we just pulled, because she waves at us, elbow-elbow-wrist-wrist, like a beauty queen.

The next morning something thumps against my glass window like the surface of a frozen lake, and I awake to aching nails. Already chipped from the hardscrabble of night, they click noisily and pull on my nail beds when I push open my casement window. I expect to find a bird twitching on the pavement below, but there is nothing. Above, the sky is endless white. My hands look longer and more elegant with nails, a china cabinet of blue veins, but I’ve never liked fake nails on anyone else, and this first set reaffirms my distaste for the obviously inauthentic. Every store I walk into, every restaurant, I watch women fingering credit cards, twisting lipstick tubes, pinching mints, everyone with plastic glued to their fingertips. I want to fit in, be part of the tribe, but can’t help but feel like we’re all a bunch of big fakers.

Rhotacism is the inability to pronounce R sounds, its misarticulation, the last sounds a child learns, and a subject of ridicule. Bullies targeted me as the stereotypical Asian who couldn’t pronounce her Rs. But my rhotic issue had nothing to do with my heritage’s liquid phoneme—the R at the end of a syllable realized either as a vowel or as nothing, so store to my Okinawan mom became sutoa—no, my speech variation had originated from a need to help a friend. She’d been the only student ostracized to speech class, and I didn’t want her to go it alone. I mimicked her version of Elmer Fudd’s “wabbit” until it became a reality.

I prop a painting onto my easel and stroke it with color, but I can’t feel the canvas. I have to hold my brush at an angle, too mindful of the nails that detract from my flow. They burn like infinite match strikes, and I can’t stand it any longer. So I pick. And pick. And pick. Until I shuck the shells of them off my fingers.

That afternoon, Kristen stops me in the hallway and looks down at my mess of torn nails, chipped polish, and raw cuticles. “What happened?” Wide-eyed, she grips my wrists until they throb. I can tell she’s hurt.

I’m hurt, too, when Kristen tells me it was her birthday. She was doing my nails on her birthday. Why didn’t she say anything? I would’ve thrown her a party, bought her a drink, treated her to tacos instead of her treating me. The thought of it weighs heavily on my chest.

I discover Kristen’s emphasis on him in That’s how we get him, wasn’t a slipup. It finally clicks when she says, “Jake’s been spending the night.” No wonder he didn’t want to bring his cousin over. Those midnight trysts at Kristen’s studio obviously meant more to her than they did to him. And here it was her birthday, and Jake not only forgot about it but shoved his kissing cousin in her face—the act of which inspired vengeance as Kristen carefully plotted the prank, and in turn shoved a gun in Jake’s face and pulled the trigger.

But Kristen didn’t get him. No, not that night. I wonder if she ever did. Later, Marla would tell me something that Jake had said about me: “I’m going to get her too.” Apparently, Jake had been sleeping with all the women in the colony. All this gettin’ to be gotten, but he didn’t get me.

At nineteen, the click of the gun’s trigger would haunt my bones—how horribly wrong it all could’ve gone, if the gun had discharged, if Jake had been carrying a weapon—the memory embedding itself inside the keratin of my fingernails. Not only was it the first time I had acrylic nails done and a real gun pointed at my chest, but also the first time I realized that you could get roped into a situation without understanding the motives of everyone involved, the unseen interpersonal dynamics at play, and become a pawn in a dangerous charade.

The problem with creating the R sound is you have two options for tongue placement: you can either raise the rear sides of your tongue so they touch your back teeth, keeping the center of the tongue lower while pushing air through the groove to create the R sound, or you can raise the tip of your tongue and curl it behind the tooth ridge. Neither is better, you simply choose what feels more authentic. I prefer staying centered and keeping low, so I use the first.

Back in my studio, I grab a set of sculpting tools and spend the next hour picking the remaining acrylic from my fingertips. Sometime afterwards, I walk down the street to Happy Days diner for some fries. Two boys, no older than eight, duck and hide around the outside patio tables, making explosion noises with their mouths. Their mother yells at them to stop running. The first boy holds his fingers out like a gun. “Bang bang!” he shouts. The second boy falls dramatically to the ground, clutching his heart. He plays dead for a beat, then he sits up, one hand on the asphalt, the other arm slung over his knee. The first boy’s face scrunches up like an accordion. “You stay down,” he says. “I got you!” But the second boy doesn’t stay down. He forms his hand into a gun and stands up.


Angela Miyuki Mackintosh is a writer and illustrator living in the Sequoia National Forest. Her writing has been published in Writer’s Digest, Under the Sun, The Nervous Breakdown, Eastern Iowa Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Exposition Review, and Permafrost, among others. Her essay, “Super Bloom” was nominated for a 2023 Pushcart Prize. She’s the founding editor of WOW! Women on Writing. When she’s not writing or editing, she enjoys oil painting, trail running, and cat rescue.