|Draw Me A Picture
Author: MeredithGreeneWriter PM
Jobless & alone, 23-yr-old Michelle sells pen & ink drawings on a Manhattan street corner in order to eat. Lonely, she draws the portrait of a handsome, British stranger whom walks by her each day. He sees it, though Michelle's nutty uncle may interfere..Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance - Chapters: 6 - Words: 59,364 - Reviews: 792 - Favs: 592 - Follows: 459 - Updated: 02-18-13 - Published: 09-14-07 - id: 2414913
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
For Stephen, who inspired me to write in the first place—and to persevere to the end-who helped me shape the characters and supplied succinct edits… and who was subsequently written into each male protagonist written of thereafter.
A hearty verse of thanks also must go out to the dedicated reviewers of & who took the time to contribute many vastly-appreciated opinions and then went on to buy our books.
The passing faces never failed to hold Michelle Gregory's interest. Each day, a continuous crowd of people walked by her midtown Manhattan corner. Most of the pedestrians didn't even notice her; they saw nothing but the quickest way to wherever it was they were going. Some of the faces wore anger; others appeared worried. The majority, however, held a fixed expression of intense concentration. After her move to the 'Big Apple' Michelle learned quickly that New Yorkers seldom smile, being completely immersed in their various occupations. At first she wondered-naively-if the amount of stress that they so willingly embraced was worth the angst and apparent insomnia. Three years later, she was convinced that the populace not only thrived on stress but prided themselves in being able to do so.
Sitting on her sidewalk-mat, Michelle shivered. At one time her coat was thick and warm; lately it sported patches on the back and shoulders. The biting fall air spoke strongly of its intention to surrender wholly to winter. As intimidating as the thought of freezing rain, icy winds and deep drifts of snow were, Michelle knew she was one of the lucky ones... she was not truly homeless. Selling her drawings on the busy corner enabled her to purchase food and all the necessary hygienic supplies.
Two years had come and gone since she was fired and blacklisted by her employer, the prominent Johnson & Black Accounting Firm. Despite visiting the unemployment office frequently, no other firm would hire the overly-moral CPA from Denver. Her "ethical issues"-as her previous supervisor had put it-interfered with the firm's normal routine of pulling illegal strings, allowing certain large clients to get away with hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes they rightfully owed. Michelle's refusal to go along with such tactics had cost her everything: her income, her dignity and even her beloved loft, a place she'd come to call home.
"And here I sit," Michelle thought. Memories of her short financial 'career' still felt unwelcome.
Drawing was the only other marketable talent she possessed and yet she found herself "overly-qualified" for every menial job she applied for. A glut of dishwashers, actors, models and waitresses vied with each other fervently for the few jobs available. Happily, the walking business-folk didn't object to purchasing Michelle's $5 portraits, landmark sketches and caricatures.
Every day she hid away her pride and trekked the eleven blocks from her hotel to sit, sketch and sell her pictures. The most popular items among the locals were funny caricatures of Mayor Bloomberg and other political figures; the tourists favored her renderings of the Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building. Each sale added to the small pile of folded bills kept in a shoe box in her hotel room. Going home with just twenty dollars was a "good" day.
At least housing was not a problem, like for so many others who tried to make it in New York city. Shortly after Michelle was sacked, a friendly ex-coworker called her with the phone-number of a Mr. Jason Chan. Michelle was in a near panic at the time-finding the job market so hostile-so she called. Mr. Chan turned out to be the manager of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. He was under pressure to shave his budget and required the services of a freelance certified public accountant. During their first meeting, the man explained to Michelle his intention to drop the hotel's pricey accounting firm and go with a far less expensive one, with just partial audit insurance. He just wanted a CPA to comb through the books and make certain all was in order prior to the transfer. Michelle dove into the piles of paperwork and software in a sort of desperation to prove herself.
The experience proved therapeutic. It reminded Michelle that she was talented in navigating mazes of numbers. Her work allowed Mr. Chan to save more than he'd hoped for and with the fear of IRS scrutiny gone, the man readily agreed to Michelle's bargain: in exchange for keeping a watch for audit flags she would on a free room, with laundry services. At that time Michelle's apartment lease was up and housing was the most precious of commodities.
Michelle looked over at her display of portraits and wondered what her parents would have thought about their daughter vending sketches in order to eat. Her mother, she knew, would have wanted her to move back in; her father would've joked about getting the Stanford tuition money back. Tears pricked the corners of Michelle's eyes at the thought of them. She'd never dreamed that shortly after graduation they would be taken from her in a simple car accident, such as she'd heard about on nightly newscasts all her life.
Time did little to heal the void they left. Even moving to New York in pursuit of some semblance of a career had not chased away the ache in Michelle's soul. With no brothers or sisters, they had been her only family in the United States. A few distant relatives of hers existed in Scotland but Michelle had never met them. She did have an uncle-her father's brother-but he'd proved an elusive relative... always working construction jobs around the world or holed up in some little-known country, often disappearing for years on end. The man had not responded when Michelle sent news of her parents' death and he did not come to the funeral. She feared that he was dead... or worse, he didn't care. Among millions of people-in the city that never sleeps-Michelle felt completely alone.
A sharp beep brought the young artist back to reality. Glancing down at her watch, Michelle felt a smile steal across her face. The watch showed five minutes after the noon hour. Sitting up, she eagerly searched the oncoming lunch crowd for a particular face, one with brilliant blue eyes. Sequestered beneath Michelle's bed—back at her hotel room-sat a portrait... one lovingly crafted. It portrayed a handsome man in his early thirties with a strong jaw, merry eyes and a downright gorgeous smile. Each time she looked at it, the man's face invoked in Michelle;s mind how one of the knights of the Round Table must have looked... minus the beard, possible fleas and hygienic issues. While she was drawing it Michelle was amazed at how the lines seemed to drip right from her pen onto the thick paper, as if they had a mind of their own. Each night she took the portrait out and allowed herself a moment's gaze and a wistful smile before putting it away again.
The man of Michelle's secret portrait actually existed. He walked by her little corner every day, at exactly 12:06... even on weekends. His routine appeared to be everything to him; it was the thing which made Michelle take notice of him in the first place. Dark blond hair set off the man's intense blue eyes. He appeared just under six-foot tall, by Michelle's reckoning... though it was hard to accurately guess from the ground.
In spite of the stranger's good looks, Michelle did not entertain romantic thoughts about him. Not until the day she saw him smile. A few months earlier a small child accidentally bumped into the man, interrupting his stride. Michelle watched as the scene unfolded, not seven feet away from her corner. His brows gathered, the man frowned down at the little urchin. A smile spread slowly over his face; his eyes shone like sapphires. Michelle stared at him, for the stone mask of the no-nonsense businessman seemed to crack. A ray of light shone through from some other realm, revealing a glimpse of his soul. It was his smile that had inspired her portrait.
As she searched for his face in the crowds Michelle reminded herself how futile it was to look and hope. Once-in a mad moment of bravado-she'd actually toyed with the idea of falling into step beside him and saying... something. Courage failed her. Later, she'd laughed at her own foolishness. What would she say? "Hi... I'm unemployed. Want to get some coffee?" Michelle imagined him looking at her askance, lifting an eyebrow or simply walking away in disgust. Certainly her face and clothes were clean but her bedraggled, worn attire was just one step above 'waif.' The very idea was unthinkable. Still, something compelled her to look for him each day, and to wonder.
12:06. The face she sought appeared. The blue-eyed man walked swiftly towards her, talking on a cell-phone. Michelle leaned forward-as far as she dared-in order to hear his voice. Bits of conversation floated toward her through the other sounds of the street and pedestrian footfalls. He had a pleasant voice, exact diction and a decidedly upper-crust English accent. He passed by quickly and was soon lost in the moving crowd of walking suits, heading to wherever it was he went. Michelle sighed, heavily. For the few seconds she saw the blue-eyed man each day, she felt light. But-in his wake-her emotions shifted to more downcast feelings, accompanied by a tendency to pity herself. He was so strikingly good-looking, so poised; she imagined herself looking like the Little Match Girl… soot-ridden and sunken-eyed, lighting matches to keep herself warm.
"Ah, well," she whispered. "Until tomorrow."
After two years of selling her drawings on the streets of Manhattan, Michelle had learned the importance of optimism. The alternative was depression; she saw daily examples of this in the lined faces of lost souls who shrouded themselves in alcoholism and misery, begging people that passed for coins. The sight of those at rock-bottom kept Michelle's spirits up; there was a lot to be thankful for, even in her situation.
A middle-aged businessman in a dark suit glanced at one of the cartoons on Michelle's display as he walked past. He laughed and dug in his pocket for money. Taking the picture down from the display board Michelle quickly wrapped it in brown paper and tied a length of twine around it before handing the package over. As the man walked away Michelle smoothed and folded the precious bills, discreetly stowing them away in her sock.
The day proved profitable; she sketched five drawings and sold four. As the sunlight waned toward twilight; Michelle stood and habitually folded her cardboard display. Adjusting her coat, she picked up the little rug, rolled it and pulled down the brim of her hat. It was not wise to be out here after dark. Stepping into the narrow river of people Michelle joined them for the walk home, eleven blocks of familiar sights, smells and sounds. The sharp tang of Chinese food and hot-pastrami filled the air. Hot dog stands and vendors selling hot chestnuts gathered at the street corners.
Working her way toward a fruit stand Michelle exchanged a nod with the elderly Vietnamese woman sitting behind the rows of apples. The woman immediately picked up two, rosy-colored pieces of fruit and put them in a small sack; she knew Michelle by sight. Handing over the money Michelle took her fruit with a smile. Down the block she gravitated towards a take-out window with excellent Chinese food. With today's sales she was able to get chow mien, broccoli beef and egg-rolls. The food smelled sublime. Michelle hastened her step toward home; she couldn't wait to sit down in her room and devour it.
The alley running behind the Waldorf teemed with people at all times of the day and night: kitchen assistants carrying bins of vegetables and fruit, bakery vans, carpet cleaners, linen delivery trucks and the occasional security guard. Michelle smiled as she spotted Samuel, a fatherly guard she had come to know fairly well. From almost day one, the older man tended to look on Michelle as his responsibility.
"Miss Michelle," he said, tipping his cap. Michelle smiled at him.
"Samuel... you are valiance, itself," she replied, shifting her packages in order to shake his hand. Laugh lines deepened around the man's eyes as he returned her smile.
"I see y' have Chinese tonight," he commented, walking with Michelle to one of the back entrances. Swiping his card, he opened the door for her. "Mabel was getting worried y' weren't eatin' enough."
Michelle chuckled. She'd only met Samuel's wife a few times but was inclined to stand a bit straighter when the stout, matronly woman was around. After just a few minutes, however, the severe facade melted and she'd fussed over Michelle like a mother hen. Once, the woman had Samuel bring her a care-basket, with canned food and such, but Michelle refused it; she had no kitchen to bake or cook and nowhere to store cans. She did appreciate the thought and wrote a note saying so, sending it back-via Samuel-along with a single rose (cut discreetly from the Waldorf garden courtyard.) From then on Mabel's deliveries consisted of cookies, with the occasional fresh loaf of bread.
"I have fruit today, as well," Michelle said, holding up the paper bag of apples. "She needn't worry. My parents taught me how to take care of myself." Walking through the door, she turned back to Samuel. "Please tell her how I adored her raisin bread. It was simply delicious."
Samuel nodded, his face taking on a wistful expression.
"I know," he said, sadly. "She wouldn't let me eat any of it; says it's bad for my diet." He patted his belly affectionately. "I may have been forced to commandeer a few slices of yours, though," he added, his eyes twinkling. Smiling, Michelle nodded goodbye; she chuckled all the way down the service hall.
The air grew in humidity and warmth as she neared the kitchens. Walking forward in the dimly lit hallway, faint scents of rosemary and garlic filled Michelle's nostrils. A half-smile formed on her face at the familiar sound of the sous-chef arguing with his boss. A loud, metallic clang sounded out and the head chef began screaming obscenities. It was one of the few moments Michelle was grateful for not taking French lessons, though she could guess at what was being said. Stepping aside, she allowed two kitchen assistants to dart by her, trying to escape the chef's wrath. Ducking into the stairwell Michelle climbed quickly to the second floor.
The hotel's cheapest rooms were tiny, but pleasant nonetheless. Michelle's room looked out over the top of the maintenance 'shed' in the corner of the garden courtyard. Rarely did she see anyone but the cleaning crews in her corridor. Not many people actually rented the "cheaper" rooms unless all others were full. Using her key card, Michelle let herself into her room. She let out a sigh of relief as the door closed behind her. Familiar things met her eye: the gray plush carpet, the bed with its deep-red linens, potted flowers growing by the open window, the diminutive antique table and the tall, cherry wood armoire. It felt good to be home.
Closing the window against the night Michelle drew the curtain and began her nightly habits. The worn boots were removed, wiped down and placed carefully in the bottom of the armoire; she hung up her coat bundles all her other clothing into the laundry basket. Michelle's tiny bathroom boasted a toilet, pedestal sink and a slender shower... just big enough for someone like her to squeeze into. The greastest advantage of the room was the hotel's boiler system: never-ending hot water. At the end of the day, it was pure bliss just to stand under such cascading heat and let it wash away the grime of the street.
After her shower Michelle dressed in yoga pants, her Stanford sweatshirt and slippers. She put her wet hair back in a pony tail and picked up her key card and laundry basket. The second floor had a small laundry 'room' at the end of the hall, hidden in a converted closet with folding wooden doors. Checking the inside for clothes Michelle set her wash going and walked back to her room, reveling in the quiet.
"If I didn't have to go outside to make money, I'd gladly make this my hermitage," she thought. The idea appealed. Beside Samuel and Mabel, she really had no one to worry about, nor any to worry about her. Here, at least, she had a small measure of secluded comfort.
Back in her room she turned on the miniature CD player adorning her night-table. Lovely strains of a piano concerto filled the air and Michelle sat on the floor by the bed. Reaching under the bedstead, Michelle pulled out a leather portfolio. She sifted through the drawings inside and found the 12:06 man's portrait. Holding it up—as if it were a fragile thing—she scrutinized the lines thereon. Michelle thought it was probably her best work. Somehow she'd managed to capture that radiant smile from nothing but memory. Smiling back at the picture, she slid it once again into the portfolio fastening up the nickel buckles.
Michelle held the briefcase a moment, inhaling the faint smell of leather. The portfolio had been a gift from her father on graduation day. The charcoal pencils and fine pens had come from her mother;. They'd known, somehow, that she'd kept her passion for art amid the myriad accounting classes and volumes of tax law. Michelle's eyes misted over as she put the portfolio away.
Looking at the hotel writing desk she smiled at the collection of pictures set up there: a photo of her parents on their wedding day, a picture of them smiling over her as a baby; a snapshot of her as a child standing by her Uncle Oscar, almost lost in the huge sombrero he had brought from Mexico. Standing, Michelle turned the music down and glanced at the clock; her laundry would not be ready to switch to the dryer for another twenty minutes. She found herself wishing she'd kept a teapot, or some kind of kettle. She missed tea... she missed a lot of things. Michelle's eye drifted to the unopened Chinese food on her desk. Smiling, she grasped it and sat down on the floor again; the spicy aroma cheered her up immensely. The egg rolls were especially good. Michelle ate, gladly abandoning the realm of Self-Pity for the winding paths of Food.
Tossing the empty food containers away in the hallway garbage chute as little later, Michelle caught a glimpse of a family checking into a room far down the hall. A small boy and his parents smiled at each other, talking excitedly as they maneuvered their suitcases into the door; they looked happy. The solitary observer felt lighthearted just looking at them until the moment their door shut, for the hall suddenly appeared barren in their wake. Michelle went back into her room quickly. Loneliness had been her only companion for the last three years, but she heartily resented its presence.
Lying in bed-some hours later-Michelle listened to the slow jangling of a janitor's cart as it passed her door. In the distance an ambulance siren rang out over the never-ending sounds of moving cars outside.
"I am lonely," she whispered into the dark. It felt so acute it was almost painful. Michelle thought briefly of the 12:06 man, of his cerulean eyes and brilliant smile. "And, I'm a coward," she admitted, smiling to herself.
There had to be a way to signal the man she so admired, to let him know she existed; a subtle way. One that did not require heroics. She would give almost anything to see him smile at her. Peering over the edge of her bed Michelle could just make out corner of the portfolio. Perhaps it was time to let her portrait see the light of day.
"It's worth a shot," she murmured. Lying back on her pillow Michelle smiled as Sleep danced its slow steps around her room.