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Fiction, Short Fiction

Character Sketch

by: John Sheirer

I've been staring at this thing for an hour now, barely able to move, my rear end stuck in my desk chair exactly where it landed when I went weak in the knees. I know what this means; I know who they are and how all of this must have happened. I've got an appointment with them -- and my destiny -- at two o'clock this afternoon. I've reconstructed nearly every detail over the last hour, my mind unable to tear itself away from the implications. My whole life I've wondered about all of this -- but now I know. My only problem is that I have no idea in the world what to do next.

It all started yesterday. I was at the mall, as usual, the same booth I've sat in five hours each day, five days a week, for almost a decade now. I sketch children in my booth -- but not the way you might think. This is a unique gig I've got going for myself here, absolutely one of a kind. Sure, lots of people do this with photographs, but that's easy. I made some calls a couple of years ago to see if I had any drawing competition, but I'm still the first, last, and only that I could find.

You see, I don't draw real live children dragged in here by shopping parents. None of that for me. Too much squirming and complaining and screaming when you try to sketch the kids themselves. Too much depressing family crap for my taste -- parents either way too proud or way too critical, inflicting life-long harm on the poor little schmucks with nearly every word.

Instead I draw potential children. Here's how it works: A couple will sit at my booth, and I'll make sketches of them. It's your standard novelty sketch, takes about fifteen minutes for both people. I'm no great artist, but I do have a good eye for faces and an easy, fluent line with the pencil. So, once I've done their portraits, I tell them that I'm going to take the sketches home, meditate on them for a bit, then draw pictures of four kids that they could have if they decided they wanted to give parenthood a whirl. The next time they come in, they can pay me a pitiful five bucks for the original portraits of themselves or fifty bucks for five renderings of their potential kids.

You know what? I get the fifty bucks every time.

It seems nobody can resist drawings of their potential kids. About half the time I get folks who really don't have kids and want to know what their offspring might look like. But I also get the other half: folks who have kids already and want to see how close my drawings come to the real tikes -- kind of like guess-my-weight at the county fair. And my customers are always satisfied. The no-kids-yet people take one look and swoon, probably ready to go home and take a crack at procreation that very day just because they fall in love with one or all of their potential kid drawings. The guess-my-weights, most of whom figured me as a fraud and just want to show me up, are dumbfounded. At least one, usually two or three of my drawings are dead ringers for their progeny. Even if they didn't bring the cash with them, one look at my pictures sends them sprinting for a bank machine.

So how do I do it? Is this a mystical gift bestowed upon me in a meditative trance? Well, that's what I want the customers to believe, but only because it gets them to recommend me to all of their friends. The truth is I'm actually half fraud. I take my parent sketches home and scan them into my computer, then run a program I designed to generate a dozen possible kid combinations. I call the program "Gregor," after the monk that did all those genetics experiments with peas. Someday I'll sell it and make a fortune, but I'm not ready to retire my act yet. It only takes about an hour to run a full day's sketches, sometimes ten or fifteen couples. Then I take the output, these strange shaded little computer-generated snapshots, pick the most interesting five, and do quick-and-dirty sketches of each one.

All in all, it's five hours of drawing and schmoozing and handing out pictures to amazed customers at the mall, and hour feeding the computer each night, and another two hours in the morning to do the kid sketches -- an eight-hour day, just like any other hard-working American, except I'm my own boss, I take lots of days off, and I clear about seventy grand a year doing it. Not bad for an orphan from the wrong side of Charelston, West Virginia's tracks.

My present predicament began yesterday afternoon. I was finishing up sketches of a mid-thirties couple, real yuppie types straight from the dressing rooms at Banana Republican, all denim and chinos, light blues and washed tans. These were guess-my-weights, I'm sure, even though they didn't admit it. They probably had three carpet-climbers imprisoned in the minivan twenty rows back in the parking lot, gasping for air in the three o'clock heat.

"We're just so interested in what our kids might look like," Mr. Dad said, proud parenthood dripping from the corner of his mouth. A dead give-away, his emphasis on might.

"Oh I wonder what you'll come up with," Ms. Mom said, looking at me wide-eyed as if to say either "My kids are much more beautiful than anything you could ever draw" or "They're monsters from the deep, here to make my life a living hell." It's pretty strange how similar wonderful parents and possible infanticiders really are.

While I was busy sketching their attractive, yet, sort of vacant faces, I noticed an older couple hanging around, moving casually, trying not to be noticed, and, in doing so, sticking out like a three-armed fish. They sort of hovered near the neighboring stores, eyes seeming to stare intently at rows of greeting cards and racks of personalized pencils, occasionally shooting a corner-of-the-eye glance in my direction.

When they weren't sneaking looks at me, I would sneak looks at them, glancing away from my yuppie customers while I pretended to root around for another pencil or get a different perspective on my emerging sketch. They looked about sixty or so, weekenders, he in jeans and madras shirt, she in a white t-shirt under summer dress, both with that healthy gleam you see in older folks a lot these days, all active-minds and fiberful-digestions.

The woman was very tall, probably six feet or more in flat sandals, nearly as tall as I am, a couple of inches taller than the man, not a bit stooped by age. Despite my powers of spying, I couldn't get much of a fix on her face, except to see that it was broad and full featured beneath a thick froth of wavy gray hair. The man was wide across the shoulders, the madras plaid making him look like a senior-division body builder, knotty arms twisting from his sleeves. His hair was half-black, half-white, almost striped in a way that could only be natural.

As I finished up with Mr. Dad and Ms. Mom, I ignored their smug winks to each other. They promised to meet me here tomorrow afternoon. I already started counting the seconds as they skipped away. I reached around to put their sketches with the others I've done today, then turned around to see that the older couple had marched right up to me--no more sneaking around.

"Hi there," the woman said. That was a switch because people usually start out with something witty like, "Hey, are you doing drawings?"

"Hi," I replied, polite to a fault, partly because you have to deal well with the public to make a living and partly because these people just seemed too nice to be anything but polite with.

"You do good work," the man said, admiring the finished drawings of the couple that just left. That's unusual as well. People don't usually compliment my work until they see the magic children sketches.

"Thank you," I replied.

I started to explain my gig, but the woman cut me off.

"Oh we know," she said. "We've been watching you today. And we've heard a lot of good things about your work."

Now that was really different. No one ever calls what I do, "my work." Mostly people think I'm kind of a hack even when they do like the results. My artist friends look down on me as some kind of sell-out for getting paid to draw, and my other friends think I've got the easiest job in the world.

"We'd like you to draw us," the man said.

"And make those pictures of our children," the woman said.

"Are we too old?" the man asked.

I laughed. "You're never too old to have your picture drawn.

I got them seated and took out my equipment--a big pad and a few pencils. They just sat there and looked at me without saying anything. At first, it was kind of strange but not really uncomfortable--at least for me. I got absorbed into the drawing, just as I always do. The pencil almost seemed to move on its own as I studied their faces, then studied the drawings, then the faces again.

The sketches took shape pretty quickly. The couple seemed to want to say something, but they were having trouble getting started.

"So," I said, getting the conversation rolling, "Do you live around here?"

"I'm originally from the southeast," the woman said, and then she and her husband exchanged a look. "But we live in Kansas now," she said.

"We're here visiting relatives," the man said.

"Oh really," I replied, smudging a few pencil lines with my thumb to get the shadow under her cheekbone just right. "What relatives?"

"Our son," the woman said.

"Ah," I replied, "so you have children. Are you getting these drawings done to compare them with your real kids?"

"Is that okay?" the woman asked.

"Sure," I said. "Lots of people do that." But they don't usually tell me that's what they're doing.

"How many children do you have?" I asked.

"Just our son," the man replied. "Do you have any children?" he asked.

This was a lot more personal than most people get with me. But something about these folks, some familiarity I couldn't quite define, made the question seem not so much like prying as honest interest.

"No," I replied, "no kids. No wife either. No girlfriend. It's just me. I was keeping a friend's cat for a while, but he decided not to come back from California, so I had to give him up for adoption."

"Oh my," the woman said, looking genuinely concerned.

"He went to a good home," I said, focusing on finishing up the sketches while I rambled on a bit more than I usually do. "I actually wanted to keep him, but I'm not home enough during the day, and he got bored with me gone. He's with a family now, a friend of mine who has three kids and two other cats. I visit sometimes, and they're all really happy together."

I looked up from their drawing for a second to find they were staring at me.

"I'm glad," the man said after a moment. And there was something in his look that made me think he really meant it. Was he really just thinking about the cat I kept for a few months and then gave away? I had a definite feeling that I missed something in the conversation.

I stared at the point of my pencil for a full five seconds, a very long time in that situation actually, but I could find no answers in the rounded gray led, so I put it away and got out a new sharp-tipped pencil. I stared at that one for five seconds as well, but it had nothing important to tell me either, so I told them that their drawings were done. Then we stared at each other for five seconds. I haven't done this much staring since my first crush on a nurse when I was seven.

"Well," I said.

"Well," they both said.

"The drawings will be done tomorrow," I said.

"We'll be here at two," The woman said.

"Is two okay?" the man said. "You'll definitely be here?"

"I wouldn't miss it," I said. Why did I say that?

We smiled and shook hands. They had walked fifty yards down the mall, glancing back three or four times, before I realized that the people I draw hardly ever shake hands with me. Maybe it's the pencil lead stains, or maybe most people just don't care. Then I realized that I had forgotten to ask their names.

In the evening, I went home and fed my sketches to the computer as usual. I barely glanced at most of them, basically different variations of the denim-and-chino couple, nothing extraordinary. But I looked for a long time at the older couple. The sketches were no better or worse than most of the ones I'd been doing for years. But in the pencil lines that made up these two faces were two attributes I'm not accustomed to seeing in my work: character and familiarity. The people in my sketches looked, as had the people in the flesh that day, like they were somebody, and, not only that, somebody I should know.

Eventually, I roused myself from my blank-minded, mildly confused, fugue-state and scanned their drawings, typing in the shorthand commands that set the magical procreation program in motion. Sometimes that's how I think of it -- as microchips procreating inside my computer. I slept well enough that night, waking only once from a common-enough late-night thirst and an uncommon nagging sense that I had just awakened from a dream that I couldn't remember and didn't know whether or not I wanted to finish.

My morning routine was routine: early rising--a slow twenty-minute jog with a ten-minute cool-down walk--a quick shave while the shower ran hot, steaming the mirror. All the while, I continued to wonder about the dream, but then I realized it was not the dream that had my mind turning unfamiliar corners. It was today's computer children. I seldom give them a second thought before pulling them from the printer, giving them a quick glance, and starting on my morning sketches. But this morning I practically ran from the bathroom to the printer, unsure why I needed to hurry. I tossed aside the yuppie kids and quickly found the dozen sheets that held the computer's mating of the older couple I had spent a strange half hour with yesterday.

The first eleven pictures were puzzles, just like the couple themselves, familiar strangers, enigmatic oxymorons who stared at me as if I were an amnesiac who had only recently forgotten who they were.

Then I got to the twelfth.

I sat down hard right where I sit right now, gripping this one sheet for the last hour so tensely that the paper has torn a bit under my thumb. The likeness is amazing, truer than I would have thought possible. I'd seen the pictures taken of this face at the orphanage, ages six through sixteen, the last year, the year the foster parents came. In fact, I have those pictures in a box at the back of my closet, unseen for a decade or more, but clear as Kodak in the black and white of my memory.

A two o'clock this afternoon, I'm meeting the parents of this face I can't stop staring at, the same parents I met yesterday. I don't know if I'll keep that appointment. How can I? But how can I not?

The face stares up at me, young and innocent, but just a bit tired around the eyes, a trait those eyes still show, more appropriate now in adulthood. The curve of the jawline, the slight downcurl of the lips, the too-straight-line nose, the low hairline, those tired eyes--all there, all true.

The face I'm staring into, the face that stares back with a thousand unasked questions, is my own.


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