Short Story by Christopher Cudworth
The face-painting gig was important to Julie. She needed the money for one thing. Damned separation from her husband was costing her dearly. All those years of yelling by him, and she was the one to blame? Her friends and family refused to understand. He welcomed her home now to cook if she felt like it, but avoided her touch. Walked around the table in fact, rather than risk brushing her arm or stumbling into a hug.
"I'm taking everything, you know," he told her. "And I'm willing to spend everything I've got to make that happen."
Holy God Almighty, she thought. That absolutely makes no sense.
Nothing her husband Eric had told her made much sense. Now his French accent seemed ludicrous rather than sexy, as it had when they first met. Their shouting matches were largely one-sided, with him rising in volume and intensity until foam literally formed at the edges of his mouth. His eyes grew wild, and it was all about control. All about control.
Now he wanted the house, the kids, the car and the friends. And she was supposed to move, exactly where?
"I don't care where you go," he threatened her. "Just somewhere close by, so the kids will not freak out. But I will get custody. I promise you that."
All these new, controlling promises that were emerging. Forgotten apparently were the promises made in the marriage vows. She missed those shoes. Those wedding shoes. They'd seemed so magical on the day they were married. But they got soiled in the outdoor reception. Flecks of mud and grass stained ruined their happy sheen.
It was back to the practical for Julie at the moment. The $150 she would make from the face-painting gig would give her gas to get to work, and at $4.00 a gallon that was no joke. A week's worth in the big old SUV she drove. The car he didn't want.
"You take the tank," he sneered. "That was your car from the start."
"To haul the kids around," she'd snapped back. Always the sharp tongue. Maybe that's what cost her the most. If she'd been a subservient wife, things might have been different. Her yelling Frenchman might have grown to love her instead of growing to hate her. Or something worse, not caring either way.
Yes, that was worse.
She could not tell from his actions where his real emotions fell. Was it really hate, or love forsaken. There was that year he went through those stomach ailments, warning her not to say a word. Not to her friends. Barely to family. She tended to his needs, his crying, fearful needs. When he emerged from treatment she thought he might warm to her. Instead the yelling simply grew louder, as if he'd gotten strength back to really let her have it.
He was afraid of the world it was obvious. His personal faith in God seemed a set-aside. Did it not apply to his situation?
She tried reason at first: "The doctor's said you were cured," she assured him.
"The doctors don't know anything," he hollered back. "I'm just lucky to be alive."
It was better, she soon learned, not to say anything at all.
Then the jealousy began. His criticism for her clothes. The sight of her cleavage drove him nuts if he saw her wearing a shirt with a button open as she left the house.
"What are you trying to do?" he insisted. "Are you seeing someone?"
"I'm going to work," she replied. But then she could not resist. That sharp and clueless tongue again. "And after work I'm going out with some friends. Because we never go out."
That started it all. The slow slide to separation, and likely divorce. So here she was on her own, working extra jobs to pay for her gas because of the demotion at work. It all certainly felt like a spiral, or locked in the center of a tornado, reaching out to friends as she spun by.
But face painting she could handle. This was her world, not his. The paints. The brushes. The smiling faces of kids and families lining up to share in a little visual joy for the afternoon.
The Family Fair
At 1:30 in the afternoon the people began to arrive at The Famlly Fair. Happy queues of kids started lining up at the booth where Julie sat with her paints and giant water jug to rinse her brushes. The designs she'd painted years ago on a sign were an invitation to stick with some simple pictures she could paint on their cheeks, but without fail she always accommodated other requests. Within reason, anyways.
There were always little boys who wanted guns or skulls painted on their faces. She would smile at them and then at mom or dad and say, "What else do you like?" The parents almost always appreciated her gesture unless they were those rough types of people who didn't care what their kids did in the world. "Give him a gun," a mom once said. "It what my ex would want anyway. The kid's going over there this afternoon. It'll make them both happy."
Yet most children lined up and picked out designs that were fun and festive. She worked that way for three full hours. It really was an easy way to make $150.
Helping the needy
As Julie began cleaning her brushes at 4:30 in the afternoon, a woman holding a small Latino child by the hand walked up to the booth at The Family Fair. "Excuse me," she leaned over, talking to Julie. "Can I talk to you for a moment?"
"Sure," Julie said.
"Over hear," the woman said. Then she whispered some instructions in Spanish to the Latino boy, who sat down in the chair by Julie's table as the two adults moved to the other end to talk in private.
"I'm wondering," the woman said. "If you would have time and be willing to come over to our center and do some face-painting for a couple hours. Our center serves children whose fathers are abusive to the wives and children. There are 53 families today, as we are serving meals and talking with our mothers. We have funding and can pay you $300 for your time. Just a couple hours. It would make the children happy. Your designs are so beautiful."
Julie stared at the woman for a second, wondering how much she might know about her own situation.
"I would love to help," Julie said. "Can you help me move my table inside?"
"Yes of course," the woman smiled. "We can send some volunteers out to help you. And God Bless you!"
The gig lasted two-and-a-half hours. A little over what they'd promised, but Julie hardly cared. She was now $450 richer for an afternoon's labor. She might even buy that skirt she'd seen at Kohl's as a treat to herself for her hard work. But then, the kids also needed new gym shoes for school. Maybe she'd buy them both.
As Julie was preparing to pack up again, a man dressed in a stained white cook's outfit walked over and extended his hand. "I could not help but notice how well you paint," he smiled, holding onto her hand. "That is a real talent you have. What may I call you…?"
"I'm Julie," she said warmly as he continued shaking her hand. "And what is your name?"
"I am Guiseppe, chef at Angianno's, right down the street. We are almost wrapped up here, but may I invite you down the block to meet the owner of the restaurant where I work? He might like to meet you."
With the help of the volunteers at the help center, Julie quickly tossed her plastic table into the back of the SUV and drove down the block to meet the owner of Angianno's. It was warm inside, and a crowd waiting to get inside for dinner was chatting amicably. Giuseppe led Julie through the crowd to the front of the restaurant where a heavy-set man stood next to a beautiful young woman seating people for dinner.
"I am back," Giuseppe said. "The people are fed. I will get back to the kitchen now, but I wanted to introduce you to Julie. She's a face painter extraordinaire. Perhaps you would like to talk to her?"
The man's eyes brightened, and swinging his hand in a broad sweeping motion, he announced, "Welcome to Angianno's. Best Italian in town. But tell me. What do you charge for face painting? I love the face painting. We would love to have you face paint for us here at Angianno's. While our guests are waiting!"
"Now? Tonight?" Julie asked, "I…."
"Surrrre, tonight, if you like? What do you need? Some space? We have space right here" he said, waving his hand. So I can watch your work!"
Julie stammered to answer. Was this the owner? The manager? Or both?
"I need to freshen up a little bit first," Julie replied. "I've been working all afternoon."
"And a glass…of wine," the manager/owner said. "I am Frankie. Frankie Angianno. Son of the founder of Angianno's. Welcome to our place," he smiled.
Then Frankie gestured to the bartender, who stepped out from behind the bar to meet with them.
Frankie said to Julie: "What kind of wine you like?"
"Red. Dry," she responded.
"You heard her," Frankie crowed. Then he grasped Julie by the hand and led her to the women's restroom. "You freshen up. We will get everything from your car, if you give us the keys and the license number. Okay?"
"Um, okay. Yes! Yes, I'll be right out."
Julie washed her face and pulled a makeup kit from her purse. How ironic, she thought then. Painting her face when she'd spent all day painting the faces of others.
When she emerged to the lobby again Frankie's staff was finishing the table setup and had pulled a brightly patterned tablecloth from a hallway closet. Julie swung into action unloading her face-painting materials. The paint beneath the aluminum foil on her palette was still wet from the afternoon's work.
Then Julie sat down as Frankie wandered over and whispered in her ear. "How much for tonight? $500 okay? A pretty woman like you needs some play money, no?"
"Yes, $500 is fine," she stammered. That was $150, then $300. Now $500. She couldn't add it up. Couldn't write it on the table because there were people around. She'd have to add it up when the night was through. So much cash already…
For three more hours she painted the faces of guests who were arriving and leaving Angianno's. It was a festive crowd. Some of the adults sat down too, most of them a little tipsy. Then people from the bar began coming over to have their faces painting. "You need a tip jar!" crowed Frankie. Then he slammed down a large glass and stuffed a $20 bill from his own pocket into the jar. Others followed suit. Julie watched the jar fill with additional money. This was unreal, she thought to herself.
Another glass of wine showed up at her table. Then another. The hour got late, closing in on midnight. She still had plenty of paints. Glad she stopped at the art store on the way over today.
She was getting tired and tipsy herself at some point. But the customers and the tips kept coming. At the end of the night Frankie paid her in cash from the drawer behind the bar and scrawled a message on a napkin with his thick pen. "Here's our number," he told her. "We had a great night. Let's do it again sometime."
Julie loaded the van back up with help of the Angianno's staff. Frankie shook her hand, as did the beautiful young girl who worked the front of the restaurant with him. "You're very talented," she smiled. Julie wanted very much to kiss her just then. She'd never wanted to kiss a girl before. How strange.
The World of Ink
Somewhere between shaking Frankie's hand and getting back into her SUV Julie felt a short tug on her sleeve. It was a man with nothing but a jean vest covering his shoulders. His body was covered from waist to neck in colorful tattoos, which went down both arms, ending in crisp lines at the wrist and up to the neck. A thin beard fell down from his chin.
"Hey," he chirped as she turned around. "How'd you like to earn a little more money tonight?"
"Umph," Julie stuttered, wondering if she was being propositioned for sex. "What's that?"
"Your face painting. A few of my friends at the bar said you did a great job at Angianno's. How'd you like to come to my parlor for a few hours and just paint people for fun? We'll take up a collection and see what it'll getcha. They're a pretty generous bunch."
"Um, well, I'm kinda tired," she replied. "I've been working since 1:30 this afternoon."
"Haven't we all?" the man laughed. "All the more reason to relax and make a few bucks while you're here!"
Julie sighed, looking around at the dark streets and the sign down the block that read, in bright red lights, "World of Ink."
"What the hell?" she said. "I'll pull the van down."
Again they set up her table and Julie pulled out the paints. But instead of working from the designs on her pre-painted poster, the tattoo parlor customers asked Julie to come up with fantastic creations. Everyone passed a hat and to Julie's astonishment, the tattoo parlor owner announced there was $1000 in cash.
Julie painted all night, into the early hours of dawn. Several men had her completely paint their faces. Women pulled down their shirts and had her paint their breasts. Julie didn't flinch. They were all nice people even if they stank of alcohol and pot. It was fun to work with people who had no airs. They all stayed up all night, laughing and showing off Julie's work to each other.
A symphonic request
Then dawn arrived, and the group started filing out the doors to go home.
A few folks helped Julie load up the van and she was standing behind the opened back door when a woman in a tight black dress stepped down from the curb and spoke to Julie. "Excuse me, do you work here,” she asked.
"No, not actually," Julie told her. "Just tonight. I was doing some face painting. For the fun of it."
"Well," the woman in the flashy black dress told her. "It so happens our symphony is doing a morning concert at the arts center," she said to Julie. "And we were hoping to find someone to doll up the symphony players with a little decorative art. Just some facial designs, you know, to heighten the creative atmosphere a little. We weren't sure what we were going to do, exactly, but were looking around to see if there might be a tattoo parlor with some temporary stickers or something. You know, like the kids wear…"
"Well, that's not what I do, exactly," Julie admitted. "But where's the concert, and how long do I have before you need me to work? Frankly I've got to pee." Julie saw the woman blanch. She then wished she'd not been so direct.
We start in 90 minutes, 8:00 a.m. to be exact. We have 83 players to paint. Just simple designs like we said. Possibly just in black ink, err, paint if you please."
Julie got directions to the art center and drove up with her table. After a quick visit to the women's rest room to again wash her face, make quick work on the toilet and touch up her makeup, she emerged to find a lobby full of people dressed in black and white. All looked intense and eager.
Julie sat down and got to work. It took her a full hour to crank out the requested designs, executed all in black paint with some white accents in places. Everyone in the orchestra looked pleased. They finished up their morning coffee and continental breakfast and rushed backstage to gather and warm up their instruments. Suddenly Julie was all alone, but she could hear the rising crescendo of stringed instruments, horns and percussion begin inside the arts center hall.
The woman in the black dress walked up with a check made out in Julie's name. "One of our patrons wrote this out to you," she explained. "Don't' ask any questions. Just cash it and enjoy." The check amount was $1500.
It was 8:30 in the morning. Julie slumped in her chair wondering how it all occurred. The Family Fair. The needy kids. The restaurant. The tattoo parlor. Now an orchestra?
Her equipment and paints were loaded back into the van by the symphony support staff. Julie thanked them and walked out to the van in the bright morning sunshine. She stretched her arms toward the sky and groaned. Her body and neck were stiff and tired. Especially her neck. "Oh, God!" she blurted out, letting loose a loud sigh.
"You said it," a woman passerby chirped. "God is everywhere. Especially on a day like today!"
Julie felt mute for a moment. She wasn't thinking about God, actually. But now that she thought about it.
"What's that on your hands?" the person asked.
"Oh, this. It's paint. I'm a face-painter. I've been painting all night…"
"REALLY!" the woman said. "I'm Patrice. I'm heading over to The Church of the Wellspring for services. But you know, if you have a little bit of energy left, today is our Passion, Praise, Pledge and Consecration Day. PPPCD! Praise the Lord! We could use someone to keep the children busy while the parents consider their Pledges for the new year. It would really help the church. We've been so blessed this year and we're hoping for even more blessings in the New Year! Can you help us out?"
"Wow," Julie said. "I think I need some coffee first."
"Plenty of that at Wellspring," the woman replied. "We always joke that the real Wellspring is the coffee pot at the church!"
Julie slowly drove the van over to the church parking lot, wondering what the Lord had in store for her next. A flock of helpers soon swarmed out the door and emptied Julie's van, then ushered her into the Great Hall where the staff brought her coffee and coffee cake. Then Julie sat down with her little poster of designs and started painting children's faces.
Two hours passed and Julie could hear nearly violent exhortations coming from inside the main church where music played at intervals, some of it rock and roll, at other times what sounded like a giant electronic organ.
Finally the crowd gave a giant round of applause and rolled out from the church into the Great Hall where they gathered eagerly around tables filling out pledge cards and pulling out checkbooks and credit cards. Julie thought she could smell money somehow, like the whole place turned green with a charitable fever. Julie was painting furiously the whole time as great lines of kids showed up. Kids of all ages. Parents stood around Julie's table thanking her profusely for doing God's Work. Julie soon switched to painting crosses and rainbows and Noah's Ark. They were easy designs and it seemed like time expanded to allow her to get to every child who showed up. Then the lines suddenly ended and people piled out of the Great Hall to whatever came next in their lives.
The woman named Patrice who'd greeted her on the street walked up with a basket full of money in her hands. "We took up a collection for you, here at the Great Hall," she said. "We don't know how much is in here, but we hope you'll agree that God is Good. And you're welcome back to The Church of the Wellspring any time you like."
Julie thanked Patrice and scooped all the money into the sturdy shopping bag she used to carry her paints. She'd have to count and organize it later. It was getting close to noon.
Just then a sturdy looking fellow wearing a Chicago Bears uniform shirt came back in through the front doors of The Church of the Wellspring. He sauntered up all happy-looking, shrugging his shoulders as he approached.
"Hello, Miss," he chirped. "I'm wondering if I could talk with you…"
"Um, Yes," Julie replied, polite as she could be. She knew nothing about football. That much she knew.
"A bunch of us is tailgating over at my house before today's games. Bears vs. Cowboys. We hate them Cowboys!" he chortled.
"Hate is not a kind word," Julie said, in keeping with her environment.
"It is if you hate with love in your heart," the giant Bears fan said. "We just love to hate the Cowboys, that's all."
"And?" Julie asked.
"We was hoping you would come over and paint our faces before we got to the game. Mostly blue and orange. Do you have a lot of that?"
"All that you need, I'm guessing," Julie said. "Where's your house?"
"You can just follow me," he said. "It's not far."
They drove from the Wellspring straight through town. Julie actually wondered if she should be driving by then. Her arms were all covered with paint and glitter, and they ached. But she had earned a lot of money and besides, the kids were worth it. It was mostly for the kids.
She followed the Bears fan up to a giant house with a manicured lawn and two giant bronze statues on either side of the sidewalk. One was a statue of Mike Ditka, the other of running back Walter Payton.
Behind the house the scene was a blitz of orange and blue banners. Wives were serving food and cocktails to a massive crowd of largely overweight men, who were drinking beer profusely. Several of them immediately lined up at Julie's table when she set up shop. To her horror, after she painted their faces they stripped off their shirts and demanded she paint the Bears logo on their chest. One of them stuffed a Bears shirt in front of her on the table and she set to copying it.
For almost two solid hours she unloaded paint onto their faces and bodies.
One of the wives walked out to her toward the end of the party and handed Julie a wad of bills wrapped together in a rubber band. "Here sweetie," the woman said. "Thanks for entertaining our overgrown babies. They'll be headed to the bus now. So will we. My kids will help you clean up."
You have not lived
The football fans piled into a large white bus that pulled away in a mass of dark smoke. Julie watched them go, standing in the bright glare of sunlight bouncing off the bright pavers that made up the back porch. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. Her head hurt. He shoulders really ached and her pants were now covered with bright splashes of blue and orange. She'd made it this far without messing up her clothes. The frenzy of football ended all that.
The young man who helped her carry her paints and table out to the van had a question for her. "You know, I really liked what you did today. You're really good. And I'm kind of wondering if you could help me out. In an hour my service club is supposed to be staffing a booth at the regional convention. We thought we had a band lined up but the band got sick last night and couldn't make it. Do you think you would be able to fill their spot? We'll pay you and all. We raised $3000 to pay them and didn't know what we were going to do this morning when the band cancelled. Maybe you could face paint and at least we won't have an empty booth."
By this time it seemed like destiny. Julie packed up her van and followed the young man out to the convention center where the two of them filled up the 20 X 10' booth space as best they could. Julie set up her paints and waited for the crowd to arrive.
The young man was quite grateful and bought Julie lunch and attended to her every need. At the end of the convention 3 hours later, Julie thought she was going to collapse in part from the strain of all that painting but also from the horrid fact of a karaoke booth that in absence of the live band had been allowed to blast the music full volume all afternoon.
You have not lived until you have heard a karaoke bar at a service convention where the participants have all slipped off to hotel rooms serving heavy alcohol and whose inhibitions are completely destroyed by the booze and public venue where no rules are enforced, especially those of a musical kind.
Julie felt battered and emotionally bruised from the affair. Yet she was another $3000 richer. It had been quite a night. There was probably $10,000 waiting for her in the van, possibly more. Some of it was cash. The rest in checks. All of it was hers.
With that sensation came a strangely liberating feeling. Her husband could yell at her all he wanted from now on. She knew she was the tougher of the two of them, when it came right down to it. Face painting had been her catharsis, her emancipation and her declaration of independence. She knew she could survive and thrive in the face of the human condition. That was all she needed to know.