Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Caricaturist




I had just been fired when I got the idea. Maybe it came to me because I was desperate.

For almost four months I'd had a job copyediting technical manuals for a branch of a large company that made refrigerators and other middling home appliances. The building was in a forlorn industrial park and my office smelled like dust, even after I brought in lemon-scented wipes and scrubbed down every surface. I'm not a fastidious person, but this was egregious
— there was dust griming the slats of the vents in the ceiling, dust motes in the air that you could see. I spent all day in a room with no windows, and my job did not require me to speak to another living person at any point during a typical workday. When my boss and his boss came in to fire me for my negligence I had let too many errors slip past me and into the latest edition of a manual, conveying inaccurate instructions for fixing the defrost thermostat I'd been feeling so isolated that my initial sensation, although I knew they'd come in to fire me, was just gratitude for human contact.

I don't have a college degree; I'd only gotten the refrigerator-manual job because I passed an editing test with flying colors, and surely also because everyone with the education the company desired had better things to do. I got fired in the middle of the month, and I only had enough in the bank to cover one more rent check. This was in November
not the time to be unemployed in a beach town that hibernates in winter. In winter here, whole days pass with no human tracks on the sand.

Asking Dad for help was not an option. He moved to Florida years ago, where there are tracks on the sand year-round. He was still trying to sell our old house. I snuck in there once, after he was gone and a "For Sale" sign was out front. I broke a basement window and slept on the floor of what used to be my bedroom. I was drunk when I did this. A neighbor heard the sound of breaking glass and called the police. Dad decided to press charges before he decided to drop them. He put the house on the market after Mom died. She did it with sleeping pills.


In summer here, schizophrenic bums migrate from the shelter to sleep on the beach, under the pier. Tourists clatter into the small souvenir and bait shops that line the pier. The bums under the pier, using overflowing trash bags and shopping bags as pillows, look up and see cracks of light. The light flickers as flip-flops scurry across the wooden planks. The bums don't only sleep there because the pier offers shelter in case it rains. They huddle beneath the tourists' shoes and shouts like huddling around a fire. They're warmed by the sounds of families and children.


I know this because I've slept there, too. When I was lucky enough to have the refrigerator-manual job, I also had an efficiency at a motel that would rent you a room by the month. But for a while before that, after my dad left for Florida and the "For Sale" sign went up in my old front yard, I slept beneath the pier and on park benches. I sometimes slept on the couches of my friends, local "townie" hookers and drug dealers who, for some reason, are the kinds of people I befriend; other people tend to bore me or strike me as phony. It was after I had slept in all of these places that I returned to my old house. I remember, in my stupor that night, wishing it could be the very last place I slept, and that I had bottles of sleeping pills.


I got the idea one night when my friend Dana let me sleep on her couch. Dana is a professional dominatrix. She had returned from an appointment with a client and was sitting at her vanity table, daubing off her make-up with a cotton ball and a bottle of Sea Breeze astringent. When she visits clients, Dana wears her black hair pulled into a tight bun, which creates a severe face-lift effect. That night, after waking in her apartment and watching her from the couch, I asked if she had a pen and something to write on. She gave me a pen that said Marriott on it and the back of a Chinese take-out menu. I wrote something
not a story; more of character sketch. It was a portrait in words. I had been thinking about things Dana had told me about her ex-boyfriends, about her father; I had been looking at her softened face with her hair down and her make-up coming off. I handed it to her when I was done. It made her cry, in a good way. It also made her slide under the blanket and press her body to me. I think I had made her feel understood. She fucked me vigorously. Now she has the portrait taped to the side of her vanity mirror, where it's always side-by-side with her reflection when she puts on her red lipstick and pulls her hair back severely.

The idea was that maybe I could do that for other people and get them to pay me, or at least fuck me, for it. That night at Dana's, in my post-coitus and pre-sleep delirium, I envisioned myself with a little booth at a summer carnival. It was almost winter; I thought that maybe I could start on a few locals while looking for a new job, and make actual money on the idea in the summer when the tourists came back. I blew most of the money I had left on a tent from a camping-supplies store. I set the tent up on the beach where I might attract a few locals, maybe some of the hardy souls who go jogging with their dogs. I made a sign that said: "Get Your Portrait Done In Words. Satisfaction Guaranteed Or Your Money Back." I borrowed duct tape from Dana, who liked to wear it in X's across her nipples with clients
her trademark and taped the sign to the tent. Inside I had a legal pad I'd taken from my old job, a pen, a radio, and a book. I didn't expect many customers, and for two weeks I didn't get any. I listened to oldies and finished my book, then three more. The only tracks on the beach for as far as I could see were my own.

The third week, I was sleeping in my tent one night when a police officer unzipped the door and shined a flashlight in. He said that I was not allowed to live in a tent on the beach. I told him it was my place of business, and he asked whether I had a business permit. I told him that had not crossed my mind, and he sent me packing. I would surely go much further in life if I had the capacity to be reverent at the right moments.


In the meantime, the grocery store did not need any more cashiers or baggers, the hardware store did not need anyone in the big lumber warehouse, the mall had all the sales clerks it needed, the restaurants were not looking for any more waiters or cooks. I checked out of the motel for good and set my tent up on the beach again, this time in a different spot closer to the pier. I didn't know where else to go.


I got pity clients. Dana brought some of her hooker pals to my tent, and I wrote character sketches about them for practice. This helped me hone my process. I asked one of them, a well-known local prostitute in her fifties, to tell me a little bit about her life. I watched her expressions closely as she spoke. Her teeth were bad; her job did not exactly come with a health-insurance package. She was good-natured, and bragged about the time she was the star of a string of articles in the local newspaper. With her brazen red hair and crotch-grazing miniskirts, she was hard to miss on the streets of this town, and she took pride in being something of a local celebrity. "They referred to me as 'Red,' even though I told the reporter my real name, which is Bonnie." She had been in jail once. She said she wanted to tell me everything, and to write whatever of it I liked. At the top of her written portrait, I wrote the title: "Bonnie."


I wrote while she talked, which was difficult. That helped me decide to ask clients to leave me alone to write for an hour and then return, like you would do with a one-hour photo developer.


I also soon realized that I would have to take a different approach with each client. I'd simply asked Red to tell me about her life, and she did. But that blunt tack made others clam up. Tanya, another friend of Dana's, who came to town from the sticks and became a prostitute to fund her various drug addictions, grew visibly defensive when I asked the same of her. So we talked about the weather, about the palm-tree design on her handbag and why she'd chosen it. Little things, mundane things. With Tanya I had to be more observant. I took note of the bitten stubs of her fingernails, of how the blond part of her hair had grown out several inches to betray the brown roots of her real color. She adjusted her tight mini-dress incessantly, pulling it down, then pulling it up, unsure whether the situation called for her to be more ladylike or more provocative.


Dana and Red loved their portraits, but Tanya's upset her. She thought I was pointing out her flaws, that I was criticizing or ridiculing her. So I told her, "I haven't finished it yet; this was just a rough draft." It was a lie, but she let me take it back and write a new one. In the new portrait, Tanya was confident and in control of her life. She had naturally blond hair and pristine unbitten fingernails like mother-of-pearl. I made her out to be some sort of mortal goddess, a beach-town Aphrodite. She was thrilled. I told her she didn't have to pay because I was using her and Red for practice, but Tanya peeled off her tight dress, took a condom out of her palm-tree purse, and made love to me on the plastic floor of the tent. Dana and Red were looking for shells among the litter washed up by the lapping waves.


It was an important lesson for me.


Afterward I listened to Tanya's breathing as she slept on my chest, the shouts and cackles of Dana and Red still a comfortable distance away. Tanya slept naked next to me, and I stared at her peaceful pockmarked face. The tent was a pine-green color, and the sun through the fabric made everything glow with a verdant, mossy light, as if we were sleeping under trees in a tropical rainforest. Tanya wasn't beautiful, and her life was a sad wreck. The truth had made her cry, but the fantasy was a narcotic. From that point on I thought of myself not as an artist or a portraitist, but as a caricaturist. Political and celebrity caricaturists inflated flaws to create something grotesque, but I would play up the things that people liked about themselves, or the things they wished were true, and omit the flaws. My caricatures would be just as grotesque, but in the other direction. This approach would make people happy, and it would make me money.


Long ago my parents and I went to a carnival. This was in summer when there are enough tourists to fill the Ferris-wheel cars and necessitate lifeguards on the beach. At the carnival my parents paid for me to get a caricature done. I was in the tenth grade and my skin was a mess of freckles and acne. My hair is brownish-red, and pubescent ginger-colored down had started to grow on my face; my father had not taught me how to shave. Sitting in the chair before the caricaturist, I feared the worst. But when he handed me his sketch, I saw that he had left out the acne and freckles completely. He had drawn a sort of young Robert Redford. He had used my reddish hair, but otherwise it was someone else. I was both relieved and, somehow, disappointed.

That day my dad bought my mom a bag of blue cotton candy. He tried to win her a stuffed animal by throwing darts at balloons pinned to the wall of a booth. His aim was bad, but each time my mom told him he had just barely missed, he had come so close. I watched the caricaturist hand ordinary people glamorous cartoons that looked nothing like them. I watched them pay him, then show the pictures to their friends and families.


The anxious, unkempt Tanya whose head rested on my tingling, falling-asleep arm, the one whose young looks were already ravaged by crystal meth, the one who smelled like cigarettes and weed, the one with defensive eyes like a cornered dog and ragged, bloody cuticles
that was the Tanya I wanted to write about. I kept the first portrait I did of Tanya, the one I'd told her was a "rough draft." In my mom's obituary there was no mention of how she died. My dad wrote the eloquent blurb for the local newspaper, about a woman who was a librarian at a college and founder of a book club and grower of prize-winning orchids, but he left the most important part out.

***

In December I still had no job and was living in my cold tent on the beach, bundled up in all of my clothes and blankets. The police officer with the flashlight came again and I had to leave. My money was all gone except for enough to buy me a few weeks of Dollar Menu dinners. For two nights I slept under the pier alone; all the real bums were smart enough to be at the shelter, but something in me, some unqualified snobbery, wouldn't let me go there. Snow fell on the second night, and I woke on an island of sand in a sea of white. No one made tracks in it until I did, walking away from the pier and heading for Dana's. I couldn't stay on her couch forever; we were friends, but she followed strict personal rules that kept her from letting men take advantage of her. I called on other friends. The guy who feeds Tanya's addictions let me sleep on his floor for a week, on wall-to-wall beige carpeting redolent of cat piss. I grew hungry for human contact and went home with a girl I met at our town's only nightclub. After a drunken fuck, she let me sleep curled up behind her, spooning her body, my hand cupping her ass. Sober in the morning, she asked me to leave.


There were icicles hanging down off the pier.


I asked Tanya if I could stay with her. Tanya lived with her boyfriend, who was also her pimp, and because she and I had slept together, she thought that was a bad idea. He didn't know we had slept together, but he was profoundly jealous
he had wanted to beat me up, and beat her up, too, when he'd found the flattering caricature I'd written about her. She had folded it and put it in a zippered pocket of her palm-tree handbag, but he found it and ripped it up. I had worn out my welcome everywhere. I gave in and slept on an available cot at the shelter until I grew too depressed to go back. I went to the well-known local plasma bank to give blood as often as I was allowed to, and I had their requirements memorized: for $35 per given pint, you could donate two times a week, with a minimum of two days between donations. I dug through the Dumpsters behind restaurants where I'd previously inquired about working as a waiter or a cook. I went back to my old house. Next to the "For Sale" sign was another sign that advertised the brand name of the new security system protecting the house.

I had almost nothing left to sell. I went to our town's gay bar and let a lonely-seeming older man buy me shot after shot of whiskey. When the room began to tilt like I was on a ship, I let him coax me into a restroom stall with him. We slipped into inevitability, into a businesslike exchange. I told him we could do this whenever he liked, and to tell his friends about me. I bought myself fast food and cigarettes this way. I did this until the winter was over, and the tourists came back.

***

When the earliest RVs and minivans lumbered down the road and filled up the Holiday Inn and Red Lobster parking lots, I felt inspired to fill out a fresh set of job applications. I didn't care about honesty in writing, about portraits versus caricatures; I wanted to survive. I craved a permanent address, a guaranteed place to take a shower. The seasonal rise in the tide of tourists meant job openings, including a few at the post office; I guess someone had to help process the flood of tourists' postcards. While I worked my way back to my pre-firing, motel-efficiency lifestyle, Dana urged me to give the idea another shot. She was, after all, good at parlaying unusual talents into a career. In the trunk of her SUV she brought me a folding table, posterboard, a lockbox for payments
not much more than you'd find at a kid's lemonade stand.

I set up the table near the big summer carnival and made a new sign
"Caricatures in Words" and we posted a Xeroxed copy of Dana's portrait as a sample because it was my best work so far. When the opening description of Dana in her dominatrix gear put people off, I wrote up a fake caricature that I thought might appeal to the middle-aged moms who are the chief buyers of souvenirs here. It was about a fictional churchgoing woman, a pillar of her community, a good wife and mom. I laid it on so thick it was practically parody, but it worked several moms read the sketch and wanted similar ones done for themselves. Some said they were going to put the sketches in their scrapbooks, and one suggested I consider using pretty stationery and calligraphy.

As I talked to these women, I listened for clues about what they liked about themselves, and what they wanted to be. "My kids come first," one said. "The Lord comes first," said another. When I asked how she'd describe herself, a frumpy sunburned woman in a visor said that when she was younger she'd been told she looked just like Elizabeth Taylor. "My best feature is my violet-blue eyes," she said. I left out what I really wanted to write about
the sideways glare shot at the eternally dense and disappointing husband, the way one woman had to keep getting up to stop her older son from punching the younger one, the chipped and dated dusty-rose polish on one woman's life-hardened toenails. It wasn't all bad stuff I wanted to write about — one woman had lines that appeared around her smile and eyes when she laughed, like ice cracking in the sun, but what woman wants to read about her wrinkles?

People evaded my first-impression assumptions. A statuesque strawberry blonde in her forties with vixen-red nail polish and an exotic amulet around her neck sat before me, and I thought she'd need no embellishment or gauzing
until she spoke, in a flat voice, only of things along the lines of how she liked to come to town because the outlet mall had some really good deals. A wispy, timid-seeming woman in a black T-shirt, with haunted eyes, said things that seemed to have hidden meanings, such as how sad she found it to come to the ocean only to have her husband and kids want hamburgers and steaks all the time. "I want to eat things that know what it's like to swim in the sea," she said and held my gaze. Her portrait was one of the few I didn't hate myself for writing.

The novelty of my services became a draw, and my clientele expanded. There were teenage kids who lined up in raucous groups (I left the acne out of their visual descriptions like my predecessor of years ago), vain businessmen in town for conferences who seemed to think it was all one big hilarious gag, retired grandparents who seemed grateful for attention and company. I was interviewed by a local reporter, and a manager for the carnival invited me to set up my table on their grounds instead of across the street.


At night, hanging out with Dana and her friends, I wrote more caricatures of the day's customers but exaggerating in the opposite direction. On a bar napkin, I would write about the fanny packs and cellulite, atrocious hick accents and the appallingly trite things a lot of them said. It wasn't that I disliked my customers, but after a day of sugarcoating I needed to balance things out. It became a favorite activity of ours. Dana, Red, and Tanya would pen short non-odes to their more heinous customers. We wrote these on napkins that we passed around, getting drunk or high and laughing.


Business was booming. I even had people ask me to do caricatures of their babies and dogs. I was telling Dana, Red, and Tanya about the glorious bullshit I spin in such instances one night while buying them a drink. Tanya stepped outside with her cell phone to take a call from her boyfriend. She came back in and sat on the stool next to me. "Such bullshit, what you wrote about me," she said, referring to what she had saved and what her boyfriend had ripped up. "I'm not really a blonde, for one thing. You know that. Anybody can see that."
That was the last time I saw her. The next week Dana told me that Tanya's body had been found in the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, who had then left town.

***

I stopped doing caricatures. For weeks after that I came straight home from the post office and got drunk while still in my uniform. I could still conjure Tanya's face that day in the tent as she had slept naked beside me, as if it had happened yesterday. I had studied her the way a real portraitist might, the wayward hairs that didn't follow the line of her eyebrows, an asterisk-shaped splotch on one cheek that could have been a birthmark or sun damage, the whitened skin of a scar on her elbow that could have been from something innocent like a bicycle accident as a kid or could have been from some more horrifying incident in her sad and dangerous life. I had stared at the dark-brown, oily roots of her hair, at the bitten nubs of her fingers. I had loved all of these things about her.

I smoked and drank and stared at the generic furniture that had come with the room I could now afford to rent.
"Such bullshit, what you wrote about me," she had said at the bar before taking a long, hard drink. The narcotic I had given her had worn off.

Dana told me that no one had written an obituary for Tanya and she asked me to write one. What I sent to the local newspaper was that first portrait I'd written of Tanya, the non-bullshit one. In it, I had written that she was a prostitute who struggled with drug addictions. I'd written that she was vulnerable and kind. I'd written about the bitten fingers and the nervous fidgeting. Of course the newspaper wouldn't print it. So I Xeroxed copies of it and put them up all over town, even in family places like the Holiday Inn lobby. I thumb-tacked copies to telephone poles, to grocery-store bulletin boards.


I went to my old house, which I couldn't enter without activating the alarm. In the mailbox, in an envelope addressed to my father, I left a new obituary I wrote for my mother. My mother was beautiful and depressed, with small clay pots of prize-winning orchids that scented the air in our old house, and scar lines of old cuts across both wrists that she covered with the many expensive bracelets my father bought for her.

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