The Artist and the Understudy: Short Fic Friday

The table was splotched with eye shadow and cracked cakes of blush, used q-tips and dashes of glitter. From the speaker rang out the yeasty bellow of Amir Kalali, tangling with the high soprano of his leading lady. She was the understudy, her voice icy and crackling.

Her voice stopped with a smacking sound effect and a yelp, and suddenly said understudy appeared in the makeup room and leapt into one of the chairs. She locked eyes with the makeup artist, who was re-curling the hair of a wig and mouthing the resentful words Kalali was singing. The artist pulled the iron out of the wig and blinked his black-lined eyes. Ah, her skin was such a different shade.

“You have quite some time,” the artist told the understudy, nonetheless collecting his brushes and filling a tin the size of a Petri dish with warm sink water.

The understudy fumbled with a wrinkle in her tights, then scratched her back. “I just wanted to be sure to get it done.” Her spoken voice had a taste of Western Europe to it, a hint that disappeared when she sang. The artist approached her; he was dressed in shining black, she in an ill-fitting gown of glittering pink, the contrast making the beige walls surrounding them seem even dimmer.

The table was scattered with different shades of tan and brown, but none of them seemed to match the understudy’s olive tones. He held tube after compact after glass jar to the understudy’s chin as her knee bounced under the table. Her petite, shining shoe creaked with the movement.

Finally he decided on a color and swirled a brush, skimming off the excess against the lip of the vial. He began reaching for her right eye.

“Oh, right,” the understudy said, holding up a gloved hand. Her hair, curled and shiny as plastic, swung to drape over her shoulder. For the first time the artist looked in her eyes. “He swung twice for some reason tonight. I know it was only supposed to be one, but it was two. And I fell on the second one.”

“He hit you twice?” The artist repeated, vaguely aware of how troubling their conversation would sound to a passer-by. “That’s weird…Kalali doesn’t like to improvise much. During a song, too?”

The understudy shrugged, shook her head. Her leg paused for just a moment. “Maybe me being there threw him off. But he hit me once in the eye, like normal, then again in the chin.”

The artist brought the back end of his brush to his lips. “What, did they play the sound effect twice too?” He paused, lowered an open palm. “Whatever. Two hits, no problem. Good thing you came early.”

The artist painted two bruises on the understudy’s face, a light one on her brow, purple and brown, and a much larger one on her chin to show the one that sent the character to the ground. It was harder to paint the bruise at such an angle—the artist had drawn the eyebrow bruise every night for weeks—but it did look rather good by the end. It was a masterpiece of pain, an afterimage of abuse. Purple, yellow, brown, red, green, white, black, blue. He etched an enlarged vein into her cheek, he contoured her chin to appear swollen on one side.

As with the normal lead, he eased off the fake eyelash where the first punch hit and then, after a little consideration, redid her lipstick to make it seem faded on one end. She looked terrible, a woman trying to cover her pain and ask for help all at once.

“You look beat up,” the artist said, smiling. “And that’s a compliment.”

The understudy glanced in the mirror, giggled, twisted side to side in her squeaking shoes. “Amazing, thank you so much.”

“Sure. Knock ‘em dead.”

The artist went back to fooling with the wig. He had another few songs before end of show, but he had to stick around in case of emergency.

The final number wrapped up, and the bows began. The artist began packing up his things, washing skin tones out of his brushes.

Someone burst in the door. Who on Earth…all the actors are onstage! The artist whirled around to catch the gleaming glasses of the director. Her hair was up, for once, in an elaborated braided bun but across her shoulders was the same green shawl as she normally wore during rehearsals.

“I got to admit,” she said, her face firm and impossible to read. “I was worried at first. Pretty mad. But I really like what you did with the bruises tonight.”

The artist reached behind him to turn off the sink. “Oh. Thank you. I just did it because he hit her twice so…”

“What?”

“Continuity,” the artist finished.

“Kalali?”

“Yes, the understudy—”

“Well, that’s what’s brilliant about it,” the director said, and the artist held his tongue. “What’s brilliant about you. He didn’t hit her twice, and you made it clear—subtle, but clear—that he hit her again offstage. At home. Again. It’s brilliant, it’s subtle, I want it every night, from now on, you hear me?”

The artist scratched behind his ear with the end of his brush. “Uh. Okay.”

She snapped and pointed at him as she slipped out the door. “I love it. Keep up the good work. You should have told me that idea earlier.”

The artist cleaned his space quickly, shoving half-cleaned brushes into their places and pulling on his jacket as he left. He had to catch the understudy before she disappeared.

He caught her as she headed to the costume area, her face still covered in his masterful bruises.

“Hey,” the artist called to her, still unsure as to how he felt. “Kalali only hit you once.”

The understudy smiled. She was in her street clothes now, an oversized sweatshirt and jeans paired poorly with an overly-made up face and perfect hair.

“No one ever hits you once,” she said, and left the artist struggling for words in her wake.

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