Felicia can’t understand why her control over her drawing seems to be slipping. Something is effecting her style but she can’t quite figure out what…
Felicia’s New Shoes
I managed to distract myself for a while by idly mapping out veins on my skin with a corkscrew. Not too deep; the wicked little point dragging lightly across the inside of my arm, trailing a little white scratch of not-quite-broken skin. Humming, I drew it down and around, across the back of my hand, picking out the little forks and junctions, telling myself not to worry.
But it was no use. With a growl of frustration I got up from the sofa. My shoes squeaked strangely loud on the kitchen linoleum. The drawings from that day were on the table. Five out of the seven customers I’d got that morning had wanted their money back. And I couldn’t really blame them. I slouched on a backward chair, tapping a squeaking rubber sole against the table leg and scowled at the drawings.
It used to be effortless to find the customers’ defining characteristics, exaggerate them, enlarge them, warp them if necessary, but still manage to maintain the fact that they were supposed to be funny, cute, not offensive. I’d been a caricaturist for longer than I cared to remember and never had a problem with making people look adorable, ridiculous or simply amusing without being…well…psychotically scary.
These drawings from this morning and over a dozen more from the last week or so were just plain nasty. I’d made a petulant little girl in pink scrunchies, a miniature Nike tracksuit (also pink) and a sulky pout into what looked like a cross between the product of an inter-family marriage and one of the underworld’s nastier minions. Underneath that one was one of a man I’m pretty sure couldn’t possibly be as bloated and corpse-like as I’d rendered him and then there was some lad’s trashy girlfriend who, from this drawing, you’d assume hadn’t changed her clothes in a month and had a penchant for hard drugs.
They were dark, dirty, twisted….nasty. The only reason I didn’t have all of them back from the last week, I’m sure, is because some of the idiots were just too polite to demand their money back.
I rubbed the red welts that were starting to swell on the skin of my arm and tried to figure out what it was that had caused this slip. It wasn’t like I hated people; I was generally just indifferent to those who decide, for a laugh, to get their caricature done to make up for the crappy weather dampening their stroll on the beach. I enjoyed doing it too, or thought I did.
It definitely enjoyed it more than my job, working part-time stacking shelves at the local supermarket. Whatever else I’d been doing, I’d always drawn. At school I was a chronic doodler and it just never occurred to me to stop. I must have been pretty good too because, sometimes, on really nice days, I even got people queuing.
It was practised, easy, like the smile I wore and the banter I threw around as I did it. Years, man…years of generally satisfied customers. And now…well, what the fuck?
As I frowned down at a sketch of a teenager who appeared to have just stepped out of the make-up truck ready to do his bit as an extra in a low-budget horror film, I mentally backtracked to try and see what had made me snap.
Bert had packed and left, but that was well over a month before. And I didn’t care. Ten years we’d been together and I can honestly say I don’t miss him. He used to be here, now he isn’t. Big deal. I mean, for the love of God, the guy was called Bert.
All I remembered thinking was, glee, no more hair on the soap. He’d been an awful lot like my Dad, when I thought about it; I had just nodded and said “Yes, dear,” as he lay on the sofa and reminded me we needed milk.
So I was pretty sure I wasn’t mourning the death of a relationship that had just been a decade-long shrug.
The front door rattling open made me jump.
“Hey, Felicia…Jesus.” Molly blinked at the pictures.
“Yeah.” I sighed and scraped all the drawings into a pile, turned them face-down on the kitchen table.
Molly smiled and shook her head, dumped her shopping bags on the counter. “Oh dear,” she said with a bit of a smirk. “Still can’t retrieve the Disney muse?”
I winced a little. “No,” I replied, turning away from the table.
“You know what they look like?” She scratched her forehead. “They look like your other stuff, you know, the stuff from your big sketch books, the stuff Bert didn’t like. All twisted branches and red ink. The stuff you do for fun.”
I rocked a little on my chair, chewing on my lip. “I know. It’s like that darker stuff’s bleeding through.”
“It’s never happened before.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, I know.”
Molly packed away tins of spaghetti and bottles of wine. “Perhaps it’s the world’s way of telling you, you know, it’s time for a change of scene? Time to go for something…I don’t know…more stable?”
I frowned at her back. “Don’t start on this again. I know I can get it back, I just have to figure out what’s wrong.”
She gave a shrug. “You could pay for this place on your own, if you finally got a decent job. I can’t stick around forever. I still think you should have gone for that magazine thing. Jim knew what he was talking about, clearly.”
I growled, shoved myself up off the table. “Yeah, but he clearly doesn’t know me if he thought I’d accept.”
“He’s your brother – ”
“My younger brother. Much, much younger.”
“So?” She turned to face me, hands on hips and smiling broadly. “He’s in with the times, he’s,” she did that annoying punctuating-the-air thing with her forefingers, “‘with it’. He knew exactly where to send your portfolio. He knew what you could use the twisted, gross stuff for. He knew they’d want you on their design staff.”
I stood up. “I didn’t ask him to do any of that. He shouldn’t have gone behind my back. I’ll figure this out.” I twisted my fingers. “I will.”
She sighed, gave and exasperated gesture then turned back to unpacking the shopping. “Fine, it’s your life.”
I moved back towards the living room.
“Oh, by the way,” Molly called from the kitchen, “I love the new shoes. Nice to see some colour on you at last.”
I blinked at the wall for a minute before looking down. My shoes…my new shoes. I tracked back in my head…ten days. Ten days of screwed-up drawing, ten days of not being able to control the way my pictures came out.
Ten days exactly. Also exactly how long I’d owned these shoes.
I shook my head.
I went through to the living room and curled into the corner of the sofa. I clicked on the television but stared at the ceiling. Something clearly had to be different. Something had dissolved the wall that kept all the darkness safe, locked at the back of my brain. I scratched at my neck idly with one sharp nail, twirling blood-bright laces around the finger of my other hand. I chewed my lip, sat up.
With a frustrated sigh I swung my legs back round and leant down and unlaced my shoes. I placed them, side-by-side, on the coffee table before slouching back onto the cushions to stare at them. I tried desperately to maintain the casualness of my scrutiny, pretending I was just idly indulging a ridiculous fantasy. But as I looked at them, it swamped my mind. I sat up, leant forward and peered at them intently, frowning.
They weren’t all that outlandish, not really. Bert would never have wanted me to have them. Dad would certainly have thought them vulgar, tasteless. But I didn’t think they were really all that outrageous. Made of sturdy canvas stitched onto thick, black rubber soles, they were comfy though not awfully practical for the beach. Each was half black-and-red striped and then half red-on-black polka dots. Scarlet laces like purposeful serpents, only slightly grubby after ten day’s wear.
Ok, so they weren’t the sort of thing you’d wear to a funeral, but at least they weren’t knee-length or made of PVC. I don’t even know what made me buy them. I was looking through one of Jim’s magazines, just curious to see what exactly it was he wanted me to be a part of (I’d thought it all rather rough and raw) but I saw this advert in the back. I’d picked up the phone and ordered a pair before I’d even stopped to think why I wanted them.
I narrowed my eyes at them. The television babbled to itself in the background. The shoes just sat there, dark and light at once, exciting and plain, daring and simple. When I blinked, they were on the inside of my eyelids, silhouetted against the flashing TV.
For a second longer I stared then I shook my head. I took them off the table and went and threw them in the wardrobe, shutting the door firmly.
Molly brought some wine into the living room and we sat with our feet up on the coffee table, watching cheesy soap operas. We laughed a little at the characters, I said sorry for snapping at her. She said it was fine, that it was nice to see some actual emotion in me for a change.
I blinked at the living room through my wineglass. The room stretched and warped through the glass and the deep red of the wine. I sighed a little, saw how beautiful such ordinary shapes were when twisted and daubed in darker colours. I could see my feet in white socks, up on the coffee table, bloated and stained through the liquid. They looked like strange leaves, tortured and blood-coloured, stretched and unhealthy.
I lowered the glass and then they were just feet. Just feet in white socks, one tiny hole in the left one, near the little toe. Ordinary, boring. Safe.
Retrieving my new shoes from the wardrobe I wondered what exactly it was that was telling me to do it. I fished them from the back, put them on. I laced them up tight, returned to the living room, propped them on the coffee table. I didn’t need to look at them through the glass for them to be exciting now. The made me smile a little.
I’d never really thought about making something as ordinary as my feet exciting before. The only things to make interesting, dark and dangerous, were tiny, secret parts of my mind and the pages in the big sketchbook. The sketchbook that Bert didn’t like, that Dad didn’t like. The sketchbook that the magazine designers had loved.
But it really was this easy. Enclosing them in something a little different, suddenly they gained something, became something else. Something a little extraordinary.
“They are cursed.”
“What?” Molly topped up our glasses.
“What about them?”
I reached for the corkscrew, twirled the point on the pad of my index finger. Chewing my lip, I frowned at the shoes a little longer. “They’ve…changed something…”
She just gave me a look, shook her head and passed me my wine.
The next day, I marched down onto the beach with my easel and my stool and fixed myself up in my usual spot, next to the pier. There was a slight breeze, but the sky was clear. I laid out my laminated samples on the sand, weighted them down with rocks, perched on the stool and, with grim determination, waited for a customer.
On my feet were some very plain, brown sandals.
When the man sat down, urged on by an over-enthusiastic wife with a lot of yellow hair and huge sunglasses, I knew that if anything was going to test whether or not I could still make people look good, this guy would.
Clearly not liking the idea in the first place, his expression did not do anything to brighten a face clearly designed for radio. I’m sure if he’d smiled he wouldn’t like quite so dispirited or look quite so much like a moose. And not your average moose, either. A down-on-his-luck, pessimistic moose, a moose that clearly was not hugged enough as a calf and that might, just possibly, have a rather uncomfortable urinary infection.
I rolled up my sleeves, pasted on a pleasant smile, and got to it.
It worked. My pencil flowed like I remembered. I chatted and smiled. I brought out his eyes, shrank his ears. I tufted up his hair a little, bulged out his cheeks, but only slightly, so he looked like cartoon chipmunk and not a drowned body. I watched the caricature unfurl down the paper as easily as an ink spill and felt something inside me sink lower and lower as it grew.
They both smiled when I handed it over, gave me a little extra money. It had brightened their day, it would go on the wall, couldn’t wait to show their kids, they’d think it a scream.
I blinked at them blindly, my grin aching.
They left and I stared until they were out of sight. The beach was empty. I felt cold despite the sunshine. I looked at the laminated samples, the childish portraits, the drawings I did so easily in my brown sandals, making ordinary people look sweet strange in a very safe way. They grinned up at me, leering.
My exposed toes bruised and my toenails cracked as I kicked away the rocks weighting them down. The breeze picked them up eagerly, sweeping them off along the beach. They skidded and skipped, scuffing scratchy sand into the air. I collapsed my easel, grabbed my stool and walked stiffly away.
I stood under the bridge, merging with the shadow and the streetlight. I rather enjoyed the way the night and the electricity vied silently and statically for space in the air. The bricks under the bridge were a mass of sandpaper shadows and orange-polish highlights.
I moved back and forth carefully, moving lightly on my feet, once again laced firmly into their new shoes. My toes were sore and split but I sort of liked the way it felt. I had my hood up against the cold and fingerless gloves on my hands to allow for manoeuvrability.
I had scattered all the twisted drawings from the last few days about my room. They lay on my bedroom floor like a contaminated snowfall. I’d started roughly sorting them, finding bits I liked, bits to change, ideas to play with. The big sketchbook was open on my pillow, dug out from its place under the bed. I’d turned on the main light in my room as well as the desk lamp so I could see it all at once, the mass of blacks, reds and browns, the twists and the sharpness, the shadows and the scratches.
It had made me breathe easier, somehow. And smile.
A fresh spray can hissed in the night as I discarded the empty one with a toothy rattle onto the ground. My face was still split in a genuine grin and I rushed back and forth, widening the reach of the spray-paint vista until it swamped all the graffiti and nearly covered the whole underside arch of the bridge. I would have to come back with a stepladder the following night to finish the bits I couldn’t reach. That would be if I could find time, in between starting off a new portfolio of designs for the magazine and helping Molly pack.
An abusive yell rang in the air. Heavy footsteps running toward me. With a laugh, I threw away the can, turned and sprinted off into the night.