The Beholder

As the millionth roller coaster of the morning screamed by, the caricature artist sharpened his pencils and prepared for his next holy errand of truth. Whatever their flaw—round face, elephant ears, egg head, proboscis, piano key teeth—let them come. Let them come and gaze into his sketchpad mirror—the most honest—and behold the unfairest of them all. His portraits never lied. Sparing no feelings, he would have truth. Let them come. He was ready.

Two college girls toting humanoid stuffed animals and frivolous cotton fluff slowed before him, their shadows preceding them onto his pad. Perfect, he thought, as he laid eyes on the shorter of the two. She was a genetic madlib of mismatched traits, a caricature artist's dream. She was little and sprightly and cute, with a pleasing round figure that rendered her childish, accessorized with big feet like flippers and bigger breasts whose incongruous weight seemed to force her onto her gargantuan tiptoes. The hair was thick and curly, ethnic-looking. It stuck straight out from the head as if electrocuted. By sight, it seemed to have the consistency of uncooked spiral pasta. And beneath the hair, perched on the dainty, elfish little shoulders was a formidable square-jawed face. The lower face was prominent over the thin forehead, giving her a pouty, cartoonish aspect, rather like a Peanuts character… or a football. The cheeks ballooned out merrily, only to puncture at the cheekbones. The nose was curved with a neat snub at the end, like a ski slope. And most comically of all, the winter sportsman taking a jump off the large nose wouldn't even be able to see the lips from the air. They were the tiniest bow, stuck in the very center of the wide jaw, with the most sedate lemonhead pucker. Her grey eyes were solemn, so deliciously unaware that she was walking low comedy, as she led her friend into his tiny, umbrella-shrouded studio.

"Hi." Oddly enough, she had a voice smooth and sugared as the funnel cakes bathing in their own fat next door. It gets better, he thought with glee. This was unworthy of him, an insult to his skill. An amateur could do this job. This one had come pre-caricatured.

But then, a second voice came thundering in a serrated contralto like the chain of a steel roller coaster groaning its way up the tracks.

"Hey, Maisie. I'll meet you back here in an hour, okay?"

"'Kay. See ya."

Then, he looked up to find the human caricature gone.

"How much?" asked her friend in the shy, sweet voice he had taken to belong to the other girl.

He was momentarily off-kilter as he accepted her money. He had expected a lark, a steal. But she was lovely, perfection. He couldn't find a single thing wrong with her.

Her body was lithe, lean, and perfectly proportioned. Her straight auburn hair shone like polished metal in the sun. Not a single strand escaped her sleek high ponytail. She had long, ivory fingers, a pianist's precise hands. And her face… her face was a perfect oval. If he wanted to create a faithful likeness, he would practically need a compass.

"Go all out," she urged him from her pose on the folding chair across from him, the landscape of the bumper cars and benches and trashcans. He jumped. She had caught him staring. "Make it hideous."

It was a challenge. He felt himself begin to sweat, forehead sticking to his shirt collar and his work hat with the appliquéd park logo. The more he looked at her, the more impossible his task seemed.

Her eyes, it turned out, were almond-shaped and fluttered their long lashes in perfect unison. Defying him, her nose was small and straight and expertly spaced from her eyes, her striking supermodel's cheekbones, and the flawless lipstick smirk framed painstakingly on her strong yet small chin. The sun armed her with a halo that obscured all the camp and the cheap entertainment behind her.

"Why," he managed rather choked, as he fought his better judgment, "would you want it to be hideous?"

Her small rather embarrassed smile was a shoot of moonlight through a crack in the curtains. "It's hard work, being beautiful, isn't it?" Her tone was joking, but her smile was self-deprecating. She took a breath laced with pure candor. "You get tired of it. Please. Won't you help?"

And how could he turn down a request like that? He set to work on his new artistic, moralistic movement—the contriving of desirable lies indistinguishable from truth. Squinting in the sun, frowning fiercely at the soaking wet children just off the log ride, who dared to break his concentration by shooting iridescent beads like renegade sprinklers of water and screaming—he began.

If he half-closed his eyes and scrunched forehead, her face was no longer such an unblemished oval. There was the faintest point to her chin, the most understated widow's peak at the crest of her hairline. He drew an ugly, angular diamond on the page. When she smiled largely in discomfort at being stared so penetratingly, her symmetrical almond eyes were displaced for a split second. He sketched two upside-down crescent moons biting into the diamond's sunken cheeks. Momentarily too close for comfort, he came away with a magnified view of her pores. As if under a telescope, they became big and cratered as the moon. All the freckles on the tip of her nose, those amorous hickeys from the sun—he transformed them into mosquito bites and zits. He dabbed colored pencil lipstick onto her straight white teeth. Finally, he finished shading—but mostly shadowing—in a fever, ripped the paper off the pad, and handed it to her.

She looked at it and laughed, a musical trill that lit her lovely eyes.

"It's perfect," she said. "Thanks. Coming, Alice!"

And with that, she waved jauntily and walked away with two caricatures, one in her hand and the other holding her hand as tenderly as such a work of art deserved, if that flesh frame was dramatically inferior to the masterpiece it held. Cartoon lips met Mona Lisa's. It was a shame. It completely threw off his sense of symmetry.

And the amateur caricaturist took his break then and ate greasy fries out of a flimsy paper box. He watched the Tilt-o-Whirl spin its passengers in sickening circles until their features blurred and their stomachs turned. Although pleased with himself, he suddenly felt inexplicably sad. His fingers itched beneath the glossy membrane of french-fry grease, and suddenly, he lusted for delicate charcoal pencils and oil paints on a stretched but undistorted canvas frame.