Note: This here’s another story about Miss May, my Salvation Skits’ mousy church girl. Since January she’s been wanting to top her inner beauty with a little outer beauty like a cherry on whipped cream. Now here it is the end of May. I figure it’s about time she gets what she’s after, or something like it…
May approached Macy’s tentatively, stepped across its threshold into a world of lights bouncing off shining wares. She stopped, overcome by the pristine makeup counters like crystal cities shooting up with their towers of products in clear cases, and their building-sized banners of flawless female faces coming down from the ceiling to meet them.
It was five past twelve on a Sunday and the cosmetics reps were either finishing touching up their counters or walking about, bracing for the onslaught of material girls, latter day worshippers of the American Dream. All of the reps were beautiful, their youthful faces exceedingly fertile fields for the products they represented.
A particularly tall, elegant rep locked eyes with May and affected a smile. May’s thoughts slowed as frames of long, thin strides in trim, black slacks and sky-high heels blew toward her. A white smock fluttered, whispered “Clinique,” and out of its collar rose an exquisite neck like ivory, long and arched. A magazine face, powder-brushed to perfection, was set delicately atop it, and shiny black hair swept back, balletic, into a loose bun.
The Clinique rep stopped before May like a breeze becalmed and smiled down on her. “May I help you?”
May stood all skinny and lost in her baggy church dress. “Um…”
The rep waited, bemused by May’s backwardness.
May squirmed, remembered the name on the lipstick Val had pulled from her purse during the church service earlier. “Lancôme, please,” she said.
“Sure. Follow me.”
May hurried after the sleek strides, to the circle of glass flying the Lancôme flag. The rep arched her ivory neck toward the center of it where a buxom beauty with long black, ratted hair stood, a mini-Elvira. She was on the phone there, having an unpleasant conversation.
The Clinique rep rapped her red nails on the counter. “That is Liza,” she said loudly.
Liza turned and glared at them, put her hand over the receiver and hissed, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
The Clinique rep pursed her perfect lips and wheeled around. May watched her blow back to her counter like a wind before a storm, then turned her head back to the Lancôme counter.
Liza flourished one hand in the air. “No,” she said firmly into the phone, “I’ve told you before I’m not going to mail that to you.”
May drew back, shot Liza sideways glances. She thought of Val coming down off a wild Saturday night all done up like Liza and shaking her sex into this morning’s church service. She began to lose sight of the beautiful side of Val that had nothing to do with her made-up beauty.
“We have it in stock here,” Liza went on. “The whole point of Lancôme counters and reps is to help you in person, not to mail products to you. If you want to receive Lancôme products in the mail, order online from Lancôme.com or call 1-800-LANCOME.”
Fear took hold of May, and guilt. Maybe God would punish her for wanting to be pretty on the outside like Val. She started to walk away.
Liza caught May’s movement, put her hand over the receiver again and hissed, “Where are you going? I said I’d be with you in a moment!”
May stopped, frozen with surprise.
Satisfied, Liza slid her eyes off May and back to the telephone, raised her voice into it, “Look. I’m not telling you again.”
May flashed back to the parishioners’ eyes when they’d caught sight of Val. The women had been appalled and most of the men had short-circuited the glints in their eyes. But she’d seen what was in the glints.
“Go ahead, report me,” Liza dared her caller. “My superiors will back me up.”
In the glints May saw a higher attraction, one to a woman who has embodied the source of femininity with full awareness and allowed it to flower at will. She’d known without doubt then that she wanted to flower, too.
“Fine.” Liza set the receiver down hard and turned to May with a look of irritation, said impatiently, “Sorry about the wait. What can I help you with today?”
“I want…” May took a reluctant step toward Liza and caught sight of her own image in a standing mirror on the counter. From out of the lace collar of her loose dress, came her plain, bespectacled face framed by straight, mouse-brown hair held back by baby barrettes. She looked away abruptly, choked by her homeliness.
Then she looked at Liza, fought back tears and squeaked, “I want to look pretty.”
Liza shifted on her feet, shed some of her edge at the prospect of a big sale. “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”
May couldn’t speak, stood helpless, looking at the floor, working on her composure.
Liza watched her face, intrigued. An innocent, she thought, one of those ugly church girls finally getting a clue. How novel. She shrugged, said, “Well then, let’s get about the business of a makeover, shall we?”
May looked into Liza’s black eyes, searching for a reason to trust her.
Liza put up a smile like a marquee. “OK, let’s start over. You know I’m Liza. And you are…”
“May. Hi. You would like a makeover today, right?”
“Here, May.” Liza was quick to warm her voice some, said, “Come ‘round to the other side of the counter and let’s look at colors for you, OK?”
Hope rose up in May with the sound of the word “colors.” She nodded and hurried to the makeover area.
Liza pulled out a tall, trendy chair for May, put up another smile. “Have a seat.”
May hesitated. The assortment of kinds and colors of testers was overwhelming.
Liza read her. “It’s OK, May,” she said. “I’m an expert.”
“Oh, I’m sure—”
“Right here.” Liza patted the seat.
May hopped up onto the chair, hooked her heels on the rung of it, smiled nervously.
Liza jibber-jabbered rote explanations of products and processes as she cleansed May’s face, chose foundation, blush, and eye shadow colors and applied them and eye-liner, mascara, and lipstick with the care of an overburdened mother on the verge of a breakdown.
May quietly endured the excess of smoothing, patting, dusting, brushing and being drawn on with sponge-tipped applicators and liner pencils. There was an awkward pattern to it like a mispronounced mantra. And brusque as it was, she felt herself become lulled by it.
Suddenly it stopped. May looked up dazed. Liza was looking at her from a few feet away, a crazed smile slowly eating up her face. A wave of fear swept May’s body. She felt she must look garish.
Liza smirked. “Now that is one of my best makeovers, I have to say.” She snatched a hand mirror off the counter and stuck it in May’s hand. May held it limply, watched Liza cross her arms under her big, creamy breasts. “Well, look!”
May snapped to, braced herself and squinted into the mirror. She was beautiful beyond reckoning. She widened her eyes, held poses at various angles. Excitement and confusion sprang up and collided inside her, got balled up in her pounding heart. She felt taxed, faint. “Oh my gosh…”
Liza uncrossed her arms, said, “Yeah.” She slid her eyes off May and began putting all the tester products back in their places, tossing away all the tissues and cotton pads. “I was top of all my art classes. And trust me, it’s a guy magnet. Like chicks dig guitar gods, guys dig art chicks.”
May only stared into the mirror.
“So, you like the look?”
“Would you like to purchase some or all of the products I used on you today?”
“Alrighty then, I’ll get those for you, ring you up and you can be on your way.”
May continued to stare at herself. Liza shrugged, went behind the counter and began rounding up all the products. “Yeah, soon you’ll be on the town, driving all the men crazy and making their women jealous. There’s no greater fun.”
Liza rang everything up. “Alright, May.” No response. “May!”
May peeled her eyes from the mirror. “Yes?”
“I’ve got your total here.”
“Oh, right.” May jumped off the chair, went over to the cash register and began digging in her purse for her wallet. “What is it?”
“It’s $351.02. Will that be cash or charge?”
May went white under all the hopeful colors. “How much? Are you certain?”
“I can’t afford that!”
Liza went cold. “You are not at Walmart.”
“Look.” Liza showed May the list of products and their prices.
“Alright, May. Listen. Maybe you’d like to select a few critical products to buy today and then buy the rest as you can afford it. How much were you planning to spend today?”
“Well, I was thinking $30…or something like that…”
Liza raised an eyebrow, guffawed. “That would buy you just one of these products.”
The bottom fell out of May. Her eyes welled with tears.
Liza snapped up a tissue and stuck it in May’s hand. “Don’t wreck my artwork, May.”
May dabbed at the corners of her eyes and babbled. “I… I don’t make enough… I work at the Christian store… I’m saving for college… I can’t…”
Liza felt the heat of a waiting customer’s eyes on her.
“Look here, May.” Liza slapped down a Lancôme brochure on the counter, scrawled careless ballpoint circles around all the products and colors she’d used on May and pushed it toward her. “Go to a drugstore and try to match product types and colors is all I can say.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Um…OK… Well, thank y—”
“Sure.” Liza turned her back on May, greeted her new customer.
“Sorry,” May whispered. She put the brochure in her purse and walked away, head down through the glints off glass and chrome. She left Macy’s feeling both foolish and bright, made her way absentmindedly through the mall, an alien between two worlds, dirt roads and diamond highways.
The brochure settled to the bottom of May’s purse and the thought of it and its garden of lush products got buried in her mind, as if it never was and department and drug stores never were. Beauty distilled to the subjective notion it had always been in the mind of humankind before the last drop of it slid from May’s head like a dewdrop off a blade of grass.
May passed between shiny shops of goods and services, between potted ficus trees and lounge chairs, through odors of cookies and pretzels and perfumes pumping out of trendy clothing stores. At the mall directory, she automatically turned and aimed for the wide swatch of outdoor light.
As she approached one set of doors she became aware of a golden man, a blonde-haired, well-built creation coming in from outside. He stopped when he saw her and spoke, “May I get the door for you?”
May stopped and looked to either side of her and realized he was speaking to her. “May?” she said.
The golden man laughed. “Yes. May I get the door for you?”
“Oh!” May blushed. “I’m sorry, I was absorbed… All I heard was May, my name… ”
“And here it is the month of May.” The man smiled and opened the door. “I’m Glen, by the way.”
May hurried all flushed through the door then she stopped and turned back. “Thank you, Glen.”
“Sure thing, May. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
May turned beet red, heard herself say “Yeah,” before she rushed to the familiarity of her beat-up Ford. She fumbled with the key in the lock, yanked the door open, fell in and started up the engine. She looked in the rearview to back up, jumped at the sight. She’d forgotten about the make-up.
May thought of Glen, wondered if he’d bothered with her because of her outer or inner beauty. She laughed, put the car in reverse. It didn’t matter. Either way, she knew she’d be even more beautiful in June.
During my travels earlier this year, I found myself out of a high-end eye cream in a low-end department store. All the cosmetics reps there were shooting for Saks reps, say, and coming up in limbo: cuts below Saks but cuts above the average one-horse-town chick. They sure were sweet, though, and I got my eye cream and a new character: Liza. The only thing that’s right about Liza is she’s headed for a noir piece when I can get to it. I got her out for this story because she wants press and she’s a pain in the ass.
Miss Alister’s “Hopeful Colors,” copyright © 2010, is included in the Sunday Scribblings lineup for prompt #217 – mantra.” Click here for more on prompt #217 from other Sunday Scribblings participants.