Prose Header

Painting Faces

by Maria Kontak

part 3 of 4

For a year I stood on my feet in high heels, five days a week, painting faces, as Mom put it, all day, and I had some answers to my own questions, I thought.

The answers came on faces such as the one before me now, reflected in the inescapable mirrors at my department store. She was a handsome woman, somewhere between my mother’s age and my own. I had noticed her as she flung the last of five upscale handbags at the befuddled sales associate and heard her click her way across the granite floor into my domain.

“Do you have a few minutes for a makeover?” I asked.

“Not unless you have something worthwhile,” the woman sneered, gliding past me as if I were a statue only slightly in her path.

“As a matter of fact, we do. A whole new line that would be a perfect match for your great skin,” I said, trying to catch her before she rounded the bay and was intercepted by my hopeful friend at the other end of the well-lit haven of jars, bottles and palettes.

Indulgence for a woman’s flesh, theatre for her soul, Velma.

That is what I wrote recently to Velma in a language that she understood, a shared world six hundred miles apart, but one and the same. My world was the world of dreams fulfilled with the stroke of a sable brush and a pencil. A world of no risk. No faulty parts. If the stroke quit pleasing, a splash of water would whisk it away. Pouff as if it had never been there. No jet crash.

Thank you, Velma, I whispered as I seated the handsome woman, whom I hoped to launch on her way to becoming my client. We started with her eyes.

“They’re asymmetrical. Can you do something about them?” she said.

“Your eyes are amazing,” I replied quickly, because they were.

I was faithful to Velma’s advice to speak truthfully to clients. I assembled the brushes and palettes and set to work. Soon we were of one piece, the client and I. Her face and my hands with the magic wands. But it was really her magic and my skill. We were smiling, shining together. Fragrant and alluring.

What had been clumsy and awkward flowed smooth as silk, even the chat. She was a lawyer. A mother. A wife. And she worried about sun spots on her neck. But not at this moment. Right now, symmetry was achieved. A hushed wave of sensuousness and ease united us. Her smile started at the lips. It ran up her cheek, past her eyes, towards the forehead. My heart beat with delight along with hers.

As Velma put it in a recent note:

You gotta let it out, even if you add a bit of something to get it right. No use looking like a mouse unless you were made to be one. And a pretty hair color it was on Martha. Everyone knew. Was, because she passed not long after. Her husband wouldn’t have me do her up for the funeral, even though they had a full open coffin. Blamed me on account of the hair dye.

He even had a glass coach with horses with red pompoms on their heads to carry her through town to the cemetery. No one here had seen anything like it. Cars stopped, pulled off the road, and gave Martha a salute. I guess he’s missing her a lot. Over sixty years they were married.

Affectionately, Velma.

My client was all affection, too, as she clicked off towards the door with a glossy bag of serums, creams and color which, hopefully, she would not return tomorrow. You never knew. I had few returns but I did get them, usually returned to another line, silently, slyly only to appear as the nasty minus on my unmet weekly goal. Numbers had followed me here too, but here I had made my peace with them.

The jealous eyes of my next transformation approached my chair, and I knew this would be a challenge. Maybe like the bad one. The really bad one, Velma.

I had the recap of my note to Velma clearly in my head:

Dear V,

Today I thought I was back at my old job. More than a tense moment. A client with two kids — a toddler and a baby — sat for an involved makeover. The toddler left more than fingerprints in the eyeshadows. All over the floor, he went. Act two. Baby brother next. All over my shoes. But I love it all the same, especially when the customers come back and... don’t talk back.

Love, L.

And Velma wrote back one line:

You’re learning!

Affectionately, Velma

* * *

“You won’t look made up,” I told the woman fidgeting in my chair. She is as difficult as her name, Velma. “Don’t worry, Stormy,” I repeated reassuringly, but firmly, “you’ll get a clean, natural look.”

“How much stuff do I have to buy?” She pulled her face away from my hands. They hung limp and I wondered.

“Three items,” I said, counting seventy, possibly eighty. Lipstick, mascara and blush. Ninety dollars if I’m really lucky.

Either Stormy liked vintage or she didn’t care about clothes. She had an angular, gawky head, but I saw her allure as I assembled the palette for her tones. Her skin was supple, healthy, probably a vegan, Velma, and her eyes loomed large, framed by unshaped, gorgeous brows.

“What do you think,” I said, “a progressive charcoal and grey on the eye with evergreen liner?”

Stormy looked skeptical. “Do you think? I don’t want too much going on.”

“Exactly.” I slid right in, removing excess blush from her broad cheeks, pivoting on one toe, feeling with every stroke like Picasso, Michelangelo, Rodin. Up to the challenge. She’s a silent one, Velma. Doesn’t want me inside her world, but I can work in silence just like you.

When I ran the final gloss across Stormy’s lips, she leapt up and grabbed her bag. “I want to see how it looks outside in natural light. I can’t stand looking made up.”

My best friend at a competing cosmetics line, “a cosmetics shop girl,” as Mom put it, shrugged her shoulders and rolled her almond-shaped eyes in a gesture of support from her perch between mockups of her line’s latest looks, a study in white and gold.

Mi Wei had been the top producer ten years running with a clientele that, unlike mine, responded to her phone voice with large orders. To me, though, she was more than queen of sales. She was my buddy, passing me her discards, and sometimes, when I hadn’t met my monthly goal, sacrificing prospective clients to bail me out. A generous sort of queen.

“A waste of time,” my nearest neighbor, Pam, from a lesser line, sidled up to my bay. “Now you know how it feels. Day after day, wasting time.”

Pam wanted my job, was keeping her eye on it, but overall she was pretty straight. Not a vulture, or at least not to me.

But I pushed back. I’m not a layback, Velma. Don’t worry. “It’s my time and it’s not wasted, Pam,” I said and watched her slink away.

Pam had locked a harried shopper in velvety vise-like grip. I watched the sour expression of the woman now trapped at Pam’s counter, and tried to block out Pam’s sing-song cheer. Sometimes I prefer vultures to liars, Velma, but even so, I enjoy my days just as you had hoped I might. But my solitude was short-lived. A customer seemed to be hovering in my bay.

“I’m sorry?” I smiled, prying myself from the spectacle at Pam’s counter. Pam’s customer was leaving in a huff, one eye painted, the other nude, looking like a battered raccoon, and to my surprise, Stormy was back.

“My boyfriend likes it,” she shrugged and handed me a credit card. “I’ll take all the stuff, you know, whatever you used.”

“The color and the treatment?” Usually they didn’t take the treatment, especially the young ones.

“Uh-huh. The whole thing, and the chart of what goes on when and where.” She giggled.

I noticed that the credit card was his card, not hers, and reluctantly declined. Here, Stormy lived up to her name, and when she was done with me, she spun on her heel only to collide with the battered raccoon. I bit my lip. The store manager wouldn’t approve anything beyond that. Only Mi Wei owned the right to laugh, and I could only join in silently. Stormy screamed, and losing a grand was no laughing matter for me.

Today had been OK, but it was Friday and I had only one day to make my numbers. I ran the register and saw that I ranked fifth. Not good, Velma, not that you would feel such pressure. Or maybe you did? As I made a note of asking in the next letter about it, I imagined sinking into the orange plastic chair, breathing in the fumes of Velma’s Beauty Shoppe, and in them, an incongruous male scent.

A man was facing me across the register. He had a beguiling smile. “Are you closing down the register already?”

“No. Can I help you with something?” Probably a fragrance for wife or mother, which as luck would have it, didn’t count towards my goal. Within earshot rang a familiar, strident voice and I saw Stormy snarling at hapless Ben in the shoe salon. In no time she was standing beside her beau at my register, and in five minutes, I had made my weekly goal. All I had to do tomorrow was show up.

Oh Velma, how good it is. I can’t wait to tell you about today. To tell, I repeated to myself, not to write. I could already hear her bulldozer chuckle as I lifted the receiver, dialed the number on the card emblazoned “Beautician not magician,” and slipped it back into my wallet.

Three rings. No answer. You’re probably doing a dye job. The ringing went on for a while, but then gave way to a click. I waited for the answering machine that didn’t come on. Instead a robotic voice spoke up, “The number you have dialed is no longer in service.” I dropped the phone, fished for the card and dialed again. And again. I hung up on the machine, at first in disappointment and then in something darker.

My hand was still on the receiver when I heard a panicked voice that I followed to the lipstick section.

“Leopard?” I replied somewhat breathily. “It’s been disconnected.. I mean discontinued.”

My customer was large and somewhat disheveled, even a bit shabby, but her look was compelling.

“Don’t worry. We’ll match it. I can see that Leopard would be a pretty color on you.”

We managed to find a nice tube and I tossed in an appointment for a makeover at my suggestion. At my expense. No purchase needed. An appointment that I would sadly have to swap for one that I could not postpone.

At home, I poured myself a glass of wine before dialing again and again, with no leads. As I sank into my fashionable chair, I wondered where to go now, and whether friendship could be contrived. Could you be friends without knowing a whole lot about a friend? The stuff that people took for granted? Who the closest relative was? What church you belonged to? Which doctors you visited? Where you shopped? Where you banked? Shouldn’t one know this about a friend?

Did Beth and Mom have it right? Was this, I wondered as I pulled out the packet of notes from my desk, all that had passed between Velma and me? Little envelopes stamped by a little post office in the Midwest, full stop? I read the first note that fell into my hand:

Dear Lauren,

It makes me feel real good to hear from you.

I read on, and the more notes I flipped through, the more I realized that Beth and Mom had gotten it all wrong. How could they not have? They hadn’t seen these notes. I poured myself another glass of wine and read the notes for something else now. Something behind the words and the hand, in some notes less fine than others.

Velma’s steady hand dipped in and off the line here and there, but that wasn’t it either. I was searching for something else, something to bridge that gap that Mom and Beth said must exist.

“You’re too different, your Velma and you, to be real friends,” my brain hammered, a chorus of Mom and Beth, and I groped for that one clue that had to be there in the pile of envelopes that would prove them wrong.

Surely Velma would not cut me off just like that. I shuffled through the notes haphazardly, the sequence was amuck, and I was still looking for a way to unlock that secret code of friendship, when my finger rested on a closing line as if by chance, a line that somehow I hadn’t read as it should have been read. It had been there before me all along, as now, in black and white:

I hope that you’ll do me up one of these days like one of your fine ladies, or maybe closer to my ladies. As the saying has it, you know, wanted dead or alive. Ha, ha!

Affectionately, Velma

My face felt hot and there was perspiration on my brow. I needed time. Nothing more. Not the name of a relative or a clergyman, and I tried to drown out Velma’s tired voice circling in my head, praying for time. Please let us have time, Velma. Time to tell you what I should have said earlier. Or was I hallucinating? But I couldn’t stop.

I wrote in a torrent, the kind of note that I had never written to anyone. The kind you read about in books or saw in movies, but my confession boomeranged on me in a few days. At least there was no dread stamp ‘deceased’. Maybe, after all, we did have time, or maybe I had been drinking too much wine all week long. Or maybe I was being rash once again. Or maybe it was the time to be rash.

* * *

Proceed to part 4...

Copyright © 2011 by Maria Kontak

Home Page