The Caricaturistby R. Gatwood
Every day before sunset, before the evening crowds started flowing in, the caricaturist shuffled up the north ramp of the boardwalk with his card table, easel, and chairs under his arms. He set up shop in the small space between the lemonade kiosk and the bean bag booth, his motions furtive, as though he might be evicted at any time. In fact no one ever noticed his arrival. His easel, never used for drawing, faced outward at an angle to the incoming stream of pedestrians. It held a sign that read
YOUR PORTRAIT IN CARICATURE
and obscured him almost totally from view.
Every day the caricaturist propped his three sample drawings against the sign, though it cost him a few minutes of gnawing dread to do it. He averted his eyes when he handled the samples. To his mind, they were very true to life, almost too true. None of them were of people he had seen more than once, from a distance, yet he felt sure that anyone who knew them would recognize them. And though no one ever noticed the caricaturist himself, everyone noticed his work.
A savvier boardwalk artist might not have called his drawings caricatures. There was nothing ridiculous about them. One showed a couple whose fingers twined together like vines; the affection between them amounted to an invisible light source. Another showed a small child clutching a prize plush octopus, the two of them beaming cartoon smiles that were hard not to smile back at. The best of the three samples (though the caricaturist himself never thought in such terms) was of a woman no older than twenty-two or twenty-three. Her lean young body was drawn up so straight it almost bent backward as she peered over the boardwalk shops and kiosks. Looking for what? The caricaturist had drawn the distant Ferris wheel and, behind it, the darkness that hid the sea, but the green eyes under her dyed red bangs appeared dissatisfied.
No matter how he hesitated to show these samples—particularly the last—the passersby who noticed them always brightened at the sight. They tapped their friends' shoulders: "Isn't that amazing? Sort of beautiful, really. We should get one done."
And of course, when people saw their own portraits, they gasped and laughed aloud in joy. Friends leaning over their shoulders gasped too: "It looks just like you!" and sometimes: "I never realized you looked like that." When customers walked away, it was they who seemed to be growing—expanding—to resemble his drawings, and not the other way around.
Drawing was his one talent. He could never utter a sound when people babbled their thanks and pressed their tips into his damp leathery hand. He could not bark, Three dollars gets you five shots, like the man at the bean bag booth next door. But he could draw.
The sky was dark early today. It was almost fall. As he waited, the caricaturist sketched the night sky at the top of his pad: thick black pencil lines that frayed along the margin. Vacationers chattered, bought popcorn, and scolded their children. The impact of sandals and stroller wheels rumbled through the wood and up the steel legs of the caricaturist's chair. Curious eyes glanced over his sign before skimming away.
When one particular person came to a dead stop in front of the easel, hand on hip, the caricaturist lowered his head further and added more hatching. His back hurt from pretending not to notice he was being observed.
Boardwalk artists are supposed to sketch as they sit, of course, but they are supposed to sit sideways, their drawing pads visible to anyone who looks over their shoulders. Passersby must have an excuse to stop and watch. Everyone who peddles on the boardwalk knows these things. The caricaturist sat frontwards, his drawing pad on his knees. His easel touched one wall and his card table stood flush with another. The only way a passerby could get a look at what he was drawing was simply to walk up and lean over the table and stare.
The person who had stopped at the easel walked up, leaned over the table, and stared.
The caricaturist's pencil line faltered. His back twinged, his stomach swam, but he made an attempt to look up. This person, he discovered, was a female person; the first thing he saw of her, not counting glimpses out the corner of his eye, was her low-necked black shirt and the white breasts inside it. Her neck was thin and white and circled by a ribbon like a black slit. He did not quite make it to her face, because, finding nothing but hatch marks on his drawing pad, she raised her head and stared at him instead. He was made peripherally aware that she had green eyes and a white face and a straw-like fringe of dark bangs.
"You drew my picture!" she said.
The caricaturist's hand crept over the nearly blank page on his pad. He itched to conceal or crumple it, though it would do him no good: the drawing he suddenly wanted to hide was the other one, the earlier one, the one that currently stood on his easel, naked to the world.
"Nobody's ever drawn my picture," she said, "I mean—not like that," and she seated herself in the folding chair across from him, resting her arms on the table. Her hair was brown-black now instead of red, but it had a familiar chemically damaged appearance. Her face was, inescapably, the face of the young woman in his months-old drawing, with the same gaze like a beam of light. That beam was now directed at the caricaturist, and it affected him much the way a spotlight or police flashlight would. His back hunched, his neck and underarms heated, and his head felt as though he had a fever.
"You're a real artist, aren't you?" said the young woman decisively. Her eyes wandered over his leathery brow, his ears, his hands curled helpless on the page. "I mean, I've known tons of people that called themselves artists, who would—God, you've even got a cheap generic sketchpad, haven't you—who would hang around cafés with their little leatherbound sketchbooks. But most of them couldn't actually, you know, draw." Her lips twisted as though her smile tasted sour.
"And even the ones that could," she went on, "—it was like they were just trying to reproduce exactly what anybody else would see. Like they all wanted to be cameras when they grew up. Shadow and foreshortening and all that Learn to Draw bullshit."
She shifted her straight-backed body forward in the folding chair, as though shifting in a restaurant booth to whisper to her date across the table. A pear fragrance reached him from her hair. He shrank a fraction of an inch back. "I haven't seen your drawings before, but I've seen the people you drew. I mean I've seen people who'd just bought their portraits and were showing them off to their friends. They all looked so ... happy."
And at the word happy, the young woman again gave a quizzical twist of her lips, not quite a smile. Her head cocked. Her eyebrows arched. She seemed to be marveling at something or making fun of someone, or both.
"Well. Anyway, I get it now." She smiled at her hands, picking at the crudely patterned lacquer on one nail. The patterns on the righthand nails were slightly cruder than those on the left. "I actually know that chubby guy in your other drawing. Wire-rim glasses? Holding hands with his girlfriend?" She gestured toward the easel. "I mean, I just barely know them from my old job. But when I recognized them it was like recognizing somebody I liked. I didn't think, Oh, there's that girl that turns every freaking conversation around to the lame-ass fantasy novels she's reading. I just thought: Holy shit, they're in love."
Her brows lifted again—that same marveling mockery. "Like: They don't have to be cool or interesting. They're perfect."
When the caricaturist, still frozen with mortification, could not respond, the young woman frowned down at the table and stammered a little. "It's— It's like you look past what everybody else sees—you really, seriously see something different in people. Something worth seeing." Her eyes rose, green as a tide. "How do you do that?"
Under those eyes the caricaturist shrank back inside himself still further. "I don't know," he said and had to clear his throat. All he could think was that some further answer was necessary, for courtesy's sake, for the sake of escaping that searchlight gaze. "I— I'm glad you like them."
The young woman's laugh was a tinkle of glass. "I wish I— I mean, I guess it's just something you do naturally, right? Nobody could teach that kind of thing. You must just figure people out—watch them or something." She regarded him gravely, tucking the longest strands of brittle hair behind her ear.
After several seconds it became apparent to the caricaturist that he had been asked a question, and a silent panic left him suffused with sweat. Her eyes stayed fixed on him. When he again cleared his throat and failed to answer, those eyes narrowed in mock peevishness. The corners of her lips curled up, pressing the fine lines there into folds. And there were more than one or two lines, despite her youth. Where had this young woman spent so many smiles in her brief life? She was tilting her chin at him now. His throat seemed likely never to stop needing clearing.
"You must have been doing this for years," she said. "Have you ever seen someone you couldn't draw? I mean someone where you couldn't get at that hidden part of them,"—she flapped an inarticulate hand before her left breast and her gaze drifted. The bitten lip she let slide from her teeth had a permanent mark from that practiced gesture. Fainter lines notched the corners of her eyes and between her brows: the marks of stares, ironic glances. Her eyes had a way of dipping to expose a trace of eyeliner and then flicking up hard. The caricaturist quailed, looked away.
The young woman smiled.
Behind her, just outside the fortune-teller's tent, two other young women stood half in shadow. Their short-skirted bodies were huddled together; the head of one hunched over the shoulder of the other; they were looking in the direction of the caricaturist's table. Their penciled eyebrows were high. One giggled and said something to the other. Both seemed on the verge of laughing aloud.
The young woman seated in the folding steel chair watched him. The lines beside her eyes folded into their crinkles as she smiled again. "So have you done a lot of portraits tonight?"
He said no. The word came out rough but audible.
She shifted in the chair, squeezing her white forearms together on the table. "Would you like to do mine again?" she asked. "You know—now that you've seen more of me?" And her eyes softened as she blinked. To the caricaturist, the softness looked deliberate.
How many years, he wondered mutely, had those eyes spent staring and mocking? Or was it mockery? The mouth-lines etched a grin like the bared teeth of a submissive animal. In her life she must have huddled and giggled with her friends, beamed falsely at teachers and managers, smiled paralytically through humiliations. She had painted a few pictures—not good ones; and she had been rejected by art schools—not many of them, because she lacked the courage to sell her own meager talent. The caricaturist saw these things without consciously seeing (for example) the splinter-sized dash of gray-green acrylic on the hip of her black jeans. He could not have articulated what he knew about the young woman or how he knew it, not ever, and particularly not now, as he tried to look anywhere but at her; yet he saw her sidling up to someone older and more talented than she was, wanting to be liked and remembered, thrilling at her success. And then despising the person she made like her, because it was so easy—smirking when he looked away.
She was smiling coyly now. What did she want? The drawing pad and table were all that stood between them. He rolled the blunt-tipped pencil in his fingers till he found a sharpish edge on one side. With a line that was spidery at first, then thin and even, he traced a rounded diamond. Coarser scribbles outlined brittle bangs, the battleground of dyeings and dissatisfactions and re-dyeings. Then that network of faint delicate lines that to the caricaturist seemed more substantial, more real, than any set of cheekbones or nose.
He was not aware of working fast, his hand darting over the page, his eyes steady, his shoulders relaxed. He was not aware of his glow of concentration or of how it drew attention almost the way his pictures did. People did not gather around him—would never gather around him—but as they passed they found themselves slowing in curiosity, stopping in twos and threes to look. He picked up the markers he wanted with one hand, not looking up. Even when they rolled across the table he found them. The young woman's arms rested on the table's edge, demurely yielding the space. For once she wasn't staring or smiling or moving. Her eyes traced gingerly over the back of the caricaturist's drawing pad, his bowed head, his markers and pencils. He didn't look at her at all.
He didn't look at her, and the face in his drawing would perhaps not have been recognizable as the one in the young woman's ID cards or photo booth pictures. The standard trick of caricature, the exaggeration of any physical features that deviate from the norm, was absent from his technique. He did not even see that the young woman before him had weak cheekbones and a strong nose. He finished the picture and held it away from himself and nodded—he didn't know he nodded—and peeled it off the pad without tearing.
There arose a murmur of shocked recognition. It had nothing to do with the shape of the chin (which was slightly too pointy, though the caricaturist did not know it) or the color of the eyes (too bright). Nor did the small cry the young woman made.
She stood and looked at him. Her brow and eyes were screwed up; her lips were parted slightly. It was a look that a few minutes prior would have pierced the caricaturist like a surgical laser. But he was still suffering the ecstatic shakiness of having finished a page, and through the veil of this ecstasy he experienced her look of hurt and contempt and bewilderment as only a very small beam of light, like a particularly dazzling reflection from the glass on the popcorn seller's cart. Except under her eyes, her face was even paler than before. Her lashes shone.
Then she was gone, stumbling on an uneven plank as she went. He found himself looking at the fortune-telling tent, where Madame Greta sat shuffling her endless decks of cards. No one stood near the open flap. The few who had stopped or slowed their pace to watch him whispered to one another, looking from the portrait to the artist in shock before moving on.
"What is it?" someone said. "Oh—it's horrible."
"It's of that girl that just ran off. No wonder, either."
"What, the pretty one? God, it looks just like her, doesn't it?" And the man who had thought she was pretty stared at the drawing on the table, his eyes wide and empty.
The friend beside him grimaced. "C'mon, let's go."
The caricaturist heard the whisperers without comprehension. None of them were speaking to him, so their words failed to register. None of them glared at him the way the young woman had, none of them tried to tell him he had broken something beautiful; if they glanced in his direction, they quickly looked away. He didn't realize consciously that they were afraid of him.
The caricaturist did not drink or smoke, and so the afterglow of his efforts always found him at a loss, with nothing to tie him to this world. Very likely he would have been better, more at ease, with a cigarette or flask or even some chewing gum, but none of these character props ever crossed his mind in connection with himself. Instead he held his blank drawing pad and sat with glazed eyes. When some strength returned to him, he picked up his latest portrait and looked at it.
The power of the image was immediate. He felt as though after resting his eyes he was peering once more into a bright light. Despite the dazzle, he was convinced: the portrait was the young woman. There was her hunger, as arresting in its way as the leering of movie stars, but repellent. (Movie stars only play at being vampires.) There were her arms in their self-conscious pose of supplication on the table; there were her hands, colorless, callusless. A worn moss-green pencil rolling to a stop beside those hands emphasized what they lacked.
The caricaturist held the drawing for several minutes, feeling like a judge too benevolent to bring the the gavel down just yet. He tried to see the young woman in two different ways. One way was the covetous, manipulative creature he had perceived tonight. The other way— Was there another way? Who had she been before he saw her tonight? Was she like the figure in his first drawing, alive with purpose or at least with desire? But in his mind's eye that figure shrank: what had been urgent and vital and noble in it now looked like impatience, neediness, arrogance. One portrait, he thought, reflected a glimmer of the truth; the other captured all of it.
Musing, the caricaturist rose, shuffled out from behind his easel, and propped the new page in front of the old one. He felt no fear or hesitation, even as he stepped into the stream of people strolling past, and he hummed as he returned to his chair.