Three Keys

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keys in a wooden door

Ever since I was three my right hand has had a crayon in it. I drew on paper, on poster board, on comic strips, on walls, and even on an occasional toilet seat. All I needed was an empty palette to spark my imagination. I struggled through twelve years of school, drawing circles on the covers of my notebooks, sketching ideas rather than homework in my assignment ledger, and staring out the long wood-framed windows of the old brick building. I dreamt about Hollywood and Oscar de la Renta. I dreamt about bright lights and tight-fitting sequined dresses. I dreamt about pretty girls and prettier boys.

Years later I found myself holding the first key. That’s not any key, it’s the first key. It means you traveled the long road from third key, to second key, to the ultimate key. Figuratively it was the recognition of arriving early and staying late, but literary it was a key. A key that unlocked the glass door to a room filled with inspiration and aspirations. A key that meant responsibility, more worries, and longer hours without extra pay.  But I was the manager. The girl that teachers said would go nowhere, the girl that struggled with tests, the girl that found it hard to fit in with others. A manager. So arriving first and leaving last was no big deal. Besides, the little store with hundreds of brushes, thousands of colors, and big mirrors surrounded by clear lights felt more like my home then the place I slept. And I could draw.

The customers came in all shapes and sizes, all colors and nationalities, but they all came for the same reason. Here their eyes grew wider, their lips became fuller, their cheeks glowed, and their brows sparkled. Each one came in a fresh new palette and left a masterpiece of my brush.

None of this was easy. Each face was a new challenge, each customer was chasing a new dream. There was the mother of three who came into the store with two in the stroller and a three-year old in tow. The little girl was skinny with eyes red from crying and cheeks streaked with remnants of a watermelon lollypop.  The mother pointed to wrinkles that had crept in with childbirth, eyes that had lost some of their shine, and cheeks that had gone pale. I sat the mother in a tall chrome chair and then pulled another over for the little one. I cleaned their faces, erasing the smudged mascara away from mom and making the sticky red lines disappear from the girl. I massaged almond lotion into their skin. The little girl watched my every move while the mother closed her eyes, letting my small fingers work in the cream and allowing her body to relax into the curve of my palm. I mixed browns with greens to bring out their topaz pupils, I swept peach on their cheeks and dotted cherry on their lips. When the mother opened her eyes, I saw them grow wide and then settle. She had found what she once had, lost and hidden under the years of midnight feedings, early morning alarms, and days without enough time. She glanced at her daughter, a three year old transformed into a china doll, her beautiful innocence beaming through the soft pastels left by the stroke of my brush.

Some came in searching for what I could not give them. Small eyed girls wishing for big-eyed drama. Women buying overpriced jars of magical cream, hoping the contents would restore their youth. Men trying to please wives. Wives trying to please boyfriends. They all came looking for that dream. They all left holding a little part of it.

I gave the speech that morning. We were booked solid for applications. Not one opening, not one favor. Prom season was worse than the holidays. December brought shoppers buying for others, but prom week was different. It was all about being the prettiest, of soft music and long dances, of having your beau believe you were the best choice in the hall. It would be like this for a week—no breaks, no lunch, and no complaining. 

The girl who held the third key had been ringing sales for two hours straight. Her eyes would catch mine and I would nod my head in sympathy and then shrug my shoulders in ambiguity. I spotted a woman and her daughter inspecting the eye colors. The girl wore a Yankee baseball cap and clothes that hung loosely on her petite frame. I’ve seen a dozen of them. Girls that wished they were boys. Mothers wishing lipstick and rouge would transform their daughter’s face and change their minds. Fathers standing outside in the shadows of the store not sure what they should wish for.

The mother spotted me in front of an empty chair and pulled the girl through the crowd. Another customer without an appointment, another pair of pleading eyes. My mouth opened ready to go through the obligatory apology when I was met with two naked eyes. Two wide circles, soft amber catching the store’s lights, but naked as a newborn bird lying helpless in its nest. The mother explained they hadn’t made an appointment because they didn’t think she’d be going to the prom. The boy had called last night.

I led them to the big mirrors, ignoring the glares from my workers. She slid off her hat exposing a new layer of brown fuzz. Soft and virgin like the first spring grass of the year that lays in the early morning sun untouched by even the delicate foot of the morning dove. Six months ago they found out, her mother told me. She might be in remission. Next month they would know. The words became background music as I looked into her fawn-like eyes and reached for my brush. I blended, I drew, I painted, and I stroked. The appointments backed up. People complained. My girls worked twice as fast. I opened a small white box and glued on lashes where there were none. I let the soft bristles of my brush caress her cheekbones that longed for the full face they once knew.

When I was done, the girl looked up and tilted her head. First to the right and then to the left. She slid off the chair and looked closer into the mirror. She touched her face and then ran her finger over long brows that weren’t there when we started. She spread her arms out as if raising her plume, and squeezed my waist as she repeated “thank you” a hundred times. I caught the reflection of her mother in my mirror. She looked at me with a softness and thankfulness that one rarely finds in my store, and then she gazed at her daughter with eyes full of love and hope.

It was hours past closing time when we finished cleaning our brushes and setting the hundreds of colors back into their precise order. One by one the others left and as I turned the key to lock the glass door I gazed at the empty chairs sitting in front of the dark mirrors. The mall was quiet and Sam, the guard, was off tonight. I didn’t recognize the new fellow at the door, an older gentleman: gray hair, round belly, sporting a two-day old beard.

“You sure are late, must be the last one here.” He took out his key and unlocked the door to the parking lot.

“I guess I am. Long day,” I yawned.

“Where do you work?” He held the door open.

“Down the hall at the cosmetic shop.”

“You a makeup artist?”

“You might call me that,” I looked up into the star-filled night sky, “but I like to think of myself as a dreamcatcher.