Kathryn Scanlan

The job would involve painting make-up and hair color onto approximately two hundred mannequins, as yet blank and nude with beige skin and locks like bobbed helmets. The owner wished them to look like 1920s dance hall girls.

It was required I submit drawings as evidence of my ability. I laid a large sheet of clean white paper on the table and looked at it some time.

I made a long oval face and large eyes rimmed in black. The brows plucked-thin and arched. A long dainty nose. A little rosebud mouth, the upper lip like twin mountain peaks. A curtain of hair across the forehead and cutting under the chin, a glossy knife blade.

I made another with ringlets and a fuller mouth. Then another with a beaded Indian princess headband and a slender cigarette between her lips. I was really filling up the page.

I found some colored pencils and started in. Red for mouths of course, pressed hard into the paper. Blond hair, auburn hair, black. Blue and green, peach, powder pink.

It began to seem strange that my women had no bodies, not even necks. They lacked ears. Their noses were not dimensional. They did not look real.

I began to worry about the two hundred. I do not know two hundred women. I doubted I could conjure as many unique faces. I looked at what I had drawn and even those three were similar despite my attempts at variance.

The job promised to pay well, however, so I leaned over the paper again. I tried shading and molding. I drew long graceful necks and bare shoulders, stopping before the breasts because on the mannequins they would already be perfect, and covered by beads and silk besides. I filled the background with bottles of booze, music notes, opium pipes, designs one might find on Oriental rugs. I darkened areas I had already shaded, hoping the emphasis would pass as confidence and skill. I was beginning to sweat. The underarms of my blouse smelled like mildew and worry.

When I leaned back again, the paper did not look good. I couldn't look at it long. I folded it, slid it into an envelope, and addressed it to my potential employer.

Some time later I found work as a hostess at an expensive restaurant. It required I dress very nicely, in skirts and dresses and a proper brassiere. Every night before my shift I stood in the bathroom and lined my eyes with pencil, painted my lashes with mascara, powdered my cheeks and rouged my lips.

I learned to smile in a way that pleased a great number of people. I learned to hold a stack of menus like a bouquet of long-stemmed roses.

Every night I took off the make-up with cotton balls soaked in soap. My trashcan filled up with wads of red and pink and blue and green and black.

One day an envelope arrived. I could see that it was my envelope, except the addresses had been scratched out and reversed. My drawing was inside, and for a moment I thought there might be an accompanying note. But I shook out the empty envelope, and there was nothing.

I unfolded the drawing and lay it again on the table. I did this wincing, as one might open a container of food that has gone moldy in the refrigerator. But I looked, and it did not seem so terrible anymore.

I sat down with it and looked some more. With a big pink eraser I started in on the background until it was almost gone, just faint marks left where I had pressed too hard. I erased shoulders and necks. Slowing, I moved to the faces, gently rubbing away color and shading. I took most of their hair too.

By now a pile of twisted rubber bits had accumulated all over the paper, so I lifted it and shook them to the floor.

What remained were three oval faces staring out, each with only the barest outline of features. They looked naked and bald, neither female nor male. They hovered in the blank space as still and solemn as masks.

Kathryn Scanlan has work in or coming from Noon, No Posit, Everyday Genius and others.

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