"So what color are you going to choose?"
"I don't do polish, you know that Byron. Well how could you, actually? When would you ever see my toes?"
"Remember when I came to see Alex the first time, he was in his crib, and I pulled on his toe and said Toes-sie? and he said No. Toe."
"He has always been precise. This is a first. A pedicure. What an idea."
"But it's fun, isn't it?"
"Yes, you were right, as always. Happy, happy birthday, dear Byron. I'm so happy to be doing this with you."
"Can you believe I never knew about pedicures all this time? What a waste. Ken told me about them a couple of years ago. You know how beautifully he dresses. He takes care of himself. He knows how. It's hard to do your own toes well. They're so far away."
"Toes are hard to reach."
"Yes and they get further away the older you get believe me. Are you sure you don't want polish?"
"My nails wouldn't be able to breathe. They would suffocate. You? Polish?"
"Of course not. Men don't do that."
"Yes they do. Of course they do. You see it in the movies all the time."
We are sitting in enormously plump armchairs that look like the first class section of a Swiss airline. Byron fiddles with the controls so that he is leaning back more. Then I do the same. Then he leans back further. I have to peer around the armrest to see him, but that's kind of nice too. A young woman arrives and begins filling the basin at my feet.
"I'll tell her what to do if you want. There's only one thing. Make sure you don't do the knife."
"Everything she has there looks like a knife---No polish, please."
"She doesn't want the knife --Byron is protective, making sure my foot therapist knows the drill--No knife. Did you understand that? No knife!---The knife is crazy. But wait till you get to the massage part. Your legs, they rub your legs. With cream. Unbelievable."
"The hot water is enough. Someone washing my feet. How often does that happen? Fabulous."
"Yes, but why aren't they doing mine yet?--- Hello? Hello?"--Byron waves his arms--"I want to be in step with you. You'll be done and I'll just be starting. I hope they understood. Two appointments. At the same time."
"I'll stay right here, just bathing my feet in hot water. I could stay here for hours."
A young man rushes in, puts on a mask, kneels in front of Byron's basin, adjusts the controls. Water gushes.
"A man. I have a man? With a mask?"
"Germs. I'm sure a man is better. Men are stronger. That leg massage. Do you want to trade?"
"No. I can't move. I'm happy. My nails are long. I've saved up for this. Do you ever wear lipstick?"
"No. My lips would suffocate. Anyway lipstick is full of lead."
"I can believe that about the lead. Paints are full of toxic minerals. How do you think they get such great color? No one seems to die from lipstick."
"It isn't right. And the more lipstick you wear the more the natural color leaches from your lips. You've seen old women's lips? Who wore lipstick every day of their lives? They have no color left. It's like their lips gave up."
"Well that sounds good. It would be better if you had some science to back you up. But it sounds good."
The beautician is wielding a fat file across my nails.
"Files? Byron, who files toenails? Is this really efficient?"
"It's much better that way, they get the edges better. I used to use a Bowie knife. When I was young."
"How was your painting trip?"
"It was marvelous. It rained the whole time though. We stayed in the garden. But mostly I'm painting skies these days. My subject is skies."
"Well that view from your apartment. Your skies are splendid."
"Speaking of rain. I loved your piece on Wales. All that walking."
"Yes. It was a lot of walking."
"I told Stacy we were getting pedicures and she said after she read that piece she could see why you would need one."
"Well that walk was nine months ago."
"You still need one. So much walking you do. You walked here, didn't you? In this heat."
The beautician is holding up a metal instrument that looks like a caviar spoon for Byron's approval.
"Yes, yes, she wants that-----They push back the skin, you know?"
"What are you reading these days Byron?"
"I'm rereading Middlemarch. Because Stacy says she still cries every time. It's been a while. So I thought I would take another look."
"Middlemarch. One of my favorites. There are those women who make you cry every time. Lily Bart makes me cry every time. I hope I'm not becoming Lily Bart."
"Women. And Hazlitt. He is the greatest. William Hazlitt. You never read him? You read Hazlitt and you see where Walt Whitman comes from. I'll read you a passage when you walk me back. John Hollander and I have been playing this game where we trade ideas about where poets get their inspiration. For fifty years, we've been doing this. Eliot's Wasteland? Tennyson's Maud. The whole thing. I'm telling you. It's amazing. I'll show you the part. But Hazlitt-Whitman is the topper. Probably my crowning contribution to the game. Fifty years, this game. I told John, this is probably my last contribution. How can I top this?"
Three young women down the row. Loud. One has a Tiffany blue on her toes. --"My toes look fat today."--One taps on her cell. --"Mom? Hello? Yes it's an emergency what color?!"-- One is wearing a fur hat and a vest and huge sunglasses cover her face. It is 98 degrees outside. I tell Byron. He leans way forward indiscreetly in his armchair. Stares. Rolls his eyes.
"You see all kinds. But usually the place is empty. I come earlier. Usually. I wonder if she ever loved me."
"Of course she did. She still does. Some people just get crazy from living together."
"Yes. I'm aware of that. Very. You? Dating?"
"No. No polish. No lipstick. No men."
"You have to ask yourself, Is he in my league? You know?"
"No one's in my league right now. I have a quiet league. Off season. Or maybe I don't even have a league. I never thought of it. You?"
"I see different women. But you have to have a yen."
"I'm into Zen. I'm learning from Theo. Meditating. It's very calming. Do you ever meditate?"
"I nap. That's enough. You have to have a yen for someone, that's the most important thing. Plus she has to live in my neighborhood."
"Are you sure you aren't setting the bar a little too high there with the neighborhood requirement Byron? Anyway you're much more proactive about all this than I am. I'm lazy. I'm not motivated enough."
"Don't worry. You look fabulous. I've never seen you look better. That dress. Is it new? I saw Jenny's daughter's movie, have you seen it? Marvelous. It is totally vulgar and hilarious and fabulous. I mean really vulgar. Filthy. But so funny. It should be a cult hit. Every campus should play it once a year at midnight. I'll tell her."
"What's it called?"
"I can't even remember, some crazy name like You're Not Famous. Or no. You're More Famous Than I Am. Or, maybe, I'm Not Famous Enough. Anyway, it is about being a young actor in New York City. How hard and exciting a life it is. It's brilliant. Meryl Streep's daughter is in it."
"It'll be a cult hit."
"Your leg. Look! She's doing your leg part now. Isn't that amazing?"
"Yes. Completely. Amazing."
We savor my leg part quietly a few moments--and anticipate his leg part.
"But of course it's probably better if you are alone. You can really concentrate on the experience."
"Oh, Byron. Do you wish you were alone? Am I distracting you? I'll be quiet during your leg part."
"No, no. Of course not. I'll come back alone some other time. I don't do this often."
"This is my treat. My birthday present to you."
"Are you sure? It's much more expensive than you think."
"Worth every dollar. This is the best. It is the best thing to be here with you. I've never had a pedicure. And I've never had a pedicure with a man. What a league you're in. We can do this every month. We can get all your women to join. I love you, Byron. Always. Happy 86th Birthday."