Picture Perfect

Carole Oldroyd

She might be young and beautiful, but she’s no Sarah. At least not yet. “Hold still,” he said. She didn’t dare blink. Or at least she didn’t. Whether or not she dared was anybody’s guess. A gentle tug and a snip, and that part was done.

Runny, flesh-toned liquid dripped from the sponge that he plucked from his work table. “Dammit.” He tossed the sponge back and strode across the room to a metal cabinet that looked more like it belonged in another decade. Or midway into the last century. Its door fussed when he gave it a pull, but he found what he was after — a fresh, white sheet.

“Don’t move.” Again, she didn’t. With a wrist snap, the sheet spread out mid-air and landed over the aquamarine chiffon of her dress with barely a wrinkle. He tucked the top edge under her chin like she was five years old and ready for ice cream in her Sunday finest. But there was no ice cream, and this wasn’t Sunday after church.

Thick fingers rubbed his gray-speckled chin. He pondered the chestnut-haired subject over his wire-framed spectacles, which had slid down his nose the way that they always did. She was a canvas, waiting for him to finish up with the transformation, and he was the artist.

The paunchy old man retrieved the sponge from its perch among bottles and tubes and vials and decanters. Some labels were new, others time-worn, others completely absent, with only a little yellowish glue still stuck to the glass. The lights flickered all at once. But that only gave him momentary pause. By all appearances, she didn’t mind.

He dabbed the excess makeup onto a rag. “Oh, hey!” He swiveled around in his creaky chair to switch on his record player. The tune was something old and sweet, sort of familiar, sort of not. “Now we’re ready.” He smiled. She didn’t.

He thought that he almost saw a twinkle in her brown eyes when the music began, but it maybe it was his imagination. Does she like pop music? His thick chest heaved at the thought, then he leaned in and went back to work.

The sponge deposited makeup that turned her flesh much peachier, much dewier than the fake-and-bake tan that it really was. He tapped and blended and carefully worked around her fea-tures that somehow didn’t quite fit, using a lightness that belied his meaty hands.

“Did you know that I’ve worked on some of society’s real beauties?”

She didn’t reply, but looked mesmerized by a speck on the ceiling. And there was that twinkle again. Or was it? He plucked a tissue from cellophane and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “Now, we can’t go mussing your makeup. Close your eyes if the lights bother you, my dear.” Did her lips twitch? That held him still for a moment, but she didn’t say anything after all.

He swiped sable eyeliner along her lashes, penciled in over-plucked brows, and dusted pink onto the apples of her cheeks. He was an accomplished mortician’s makeup artist. Towns-folk talked about his work for generations.
“And your hair. My dear, I’m not sure what kind of style you normally wear, but this won’t do. Not for today.” A thin piece of flexible tubing got in the way, which he nudged aside, then he reached down and tugged on a lever that raised her a little higher.

“You know, the Fuller boar’s hair brush is the best, especially for finer hair like yours.” She didn’t respond to his nervous chatter as he smoothed her hair up and away from her face. He back-brushed, something that tackier people call “teasing,” which jerked her head to the side, an offense for which he apologized. Still, she didn’t flinch. Not that he expected her to.

He twirled and he pinned until her up-do was just so, with auburn ringlets framing her rounded face. Then he misted a smothering cloud of setting spray from a tall, gold-colored can.

“There!” He fanned away the fumes. “Would you like to see?” She shifted her eyes away. “You really are a beauty now. One of my best!” He grabbed a long-handled mirror from the clut-tered table, and held it inches from her nose. But he forgot the most important part.

The mirror hit the table with a thunk. He rummaged around, then picked up a long tray of small, rectangular reservoirs with shiny reds, browns, and pinks. A slender brush swirled in rose red, and he dabbed some onto the hairy back of his hand. Then some pink, and then a little brown. He blended them together, stopped to scratch his nose and push up his spectacles, then added a little more pink. The fine brush traced the line of her mouth first, then he filled in the outline with color.

The chair creaked under his considerable weight as he leaned back to admire his work, slowly shaking his head back and forth. “Remarkable.” The corners of his own mouth turned up, but the click-click-clicking at the end of the record play pulled him from his musings.

He had no idea how much time passed since the music stopped. But then again, work al-ways took his mind someplace else. He checked his watch, tapped it and listened closely, then pushed back his chair and walked over to peek out the dirt-specked, high basement window. The sun softened to more of a late afternoon glow, and that reminded him of the evening just a week or two before.


“You’ve lost your mind, Luther.” The irked woman tapped a pointy, red fingernail on the counter. Her signature tight chignon and slim tailored suit always spoke more about her severe personality than anything that came out of her mouth.

“You owe me!” The glass display case and its bright-bottled contents rattled under his fists.

“I owe you nothing,” Bernadette hissed.

“Your lousy son is the reason my Sarah’s dead!”

That much was true. A fifth of cheap whisky and the fine mist of a late spring rain sent Jonathan and his prom date headlong off Route 11 and into the river instead of to their Underwa-ter Paradise dance. That irony wasn’t lost on their classmates, who turned to jokes too soon for any respectable adult’s taste.

“Just one. That’s all I need,” the broken man’s tone went almost pathetic. “I never even got a picture of my baby in her prom dress.”

She pointed at the steel door in the back of her salon, which connected their two radically different businesses. “Go. Before I call the police.”

Bernadette understood one thing — money. And his whole life’s savings was what it eventually took.

Clanging and crashing metal and glass snapped him back from his reverie. He turned on his orthopedic-shoed heel to find bottles tipped over, others broken on the floor, and her pow-dered, shaky hand fumbling around blindly for the mirror. “No no, dear. Let me help.” He pushed his spectacles up his nose and moved alongside the table.

His eyes traced the tubing up from the clear tape on her left wrist to a bag perched high on a chrome pole. Empty. He clamped off the tubing and swapped out the bag for the fresh one from under his bench.

And then the liquid began to flow. The pretty brunette relaxed in stages. First her fingers eased and rested lightly on the table, then the whole of her hands. Next came her arms and shoul-ders. One hand slipped off the stainless steel, but he positioned it back into place. The twinkle returned, so he blotted around tiny sutures near her eyes and ears. “You’ve done beautifully, my sweet Sarah. It’s almost time.” Her forehead smelled sweet as he kissed it.

The last bits of sunlight tucked in for the night while he tidied his dank basement studio beneath the Blissful Streams Mortuary, which incidentally adjoined the backside of Glamourama Hair, Nail, and Spray-Tanning Salon.

He noticed girls filing in and out of the salon while outside on his many smoke breaks through the year. So many people in this town. Easy to find the right one. Easy for Bernadette, anyway. The right hair, the right build. He swore that she almost grinned over the exchange of cash and liquor on the night of their agreement.

The record player clunked and turned out a different song, just as old and barely familiar as the others. Her breathing was slow, but regular. In the next room, Bernadette adjusted the lights and taped blue-green crepe paper streamers around a glittery banner reading “Underwater Paradise.”


Carole Oldroyd is a freelance writer who spends most of her days mainlining coffee and earning her living with words while surrounded by them. She pecks away incessantly at a keyboard from a window seat desk that’s flanked by book cases overflowing with the likes of Shelley, Poe, Straub and King. Inside her folk Victorian farmhouse that’s nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, she and her two cats and two dogs are more than plenty familiar with rattling doorknobs, footfalls on the old walnut staircase, and things that go bump in the night. She wishes that more people were familiar with James Whitcomb Riley’s spooky poem, Little Orphant Annie, which her grandmother used to recite with wide-eyed, animated glee. You can check out more of her writing at her blogs,Irrational Propensity and House Hugger.

Image created by Carole Oldroyd.
Matt Roberts - 10/22/2015 12:14 AM
Cool read! I'd love to read more of this!
Carole - 10/22/2015 1:11 AM
Thanks, Matt!
Terri - 10/22/2015 1:11 AM
Superb and well done. I can hear Beyond the Sea playing in the background.
Haggis Chihuahua - 10/22/2015 10:32 AM
Whoa! Nice twist at the end. I wasn't expecting that. Well done.
Jordan Drew - 10/23/2015 12:34 AM
Awesome story! Thank you, Carole!
joey - 10/23/2015 8:53 AM
Whoa,that was good!
Carole - 10/23/2015 9:58 AM
I'm glad that you liked it!
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