The Avon Lady
(published 2010 in Pandora Unleashed)
Growth arrives first, as he always does, though Decay charges in just after him. They had chosen the city together—their favorite—though the posh conference room in a new Amsterdam office building was pure Growth.
Beauty arrives next. She sits near the head of the table—just two chairs from Growth—and taps her nails against her teeth. “You’re in charge today, right?”
“Good. Thanks.” And she returns to tapping her teeth, glancing occasionally at Decay, who sits at the far end of the table, peeling skin from the back of his hand and putting it in the breast pocket of his threadbare dress shirt.
They sit in silence till Happiness walks in pulling Mourning by the hand. She glances at Growth in silent plea.
Growth coughs. “Why don’t you sit over by Decay, Happiness?” Happiness smiles and bounds off. Mourning sits across from Beauty.
Happiness pops back up from his seat when Wisdom arrives and sits next to him near the middle of the table.
The five of them listen to Happiness prattle—no one more closely than Happiness himself—and wait for Fear and Pleasure to arrive. They will not wait for Waste or Loss. Waste had been seen in months—Loss for centuries.
Pleasure rushes into the room out of breath and kisses Growth before settling into the seat between him and Mourning, rubbing herself against each in turn.
Fear trudges in behind her, his long coattails dragging behind his emaciated form. He walks slowly past Pleasure, staring, before sitting halfway between Decay and Happiness.
“Shall we begin? Very well.” Growth clears his throat and stands. “Shall we begin?”
“We shall begin,” they chorus.
“Very well.” Growth sits back down and pulls his seat closer to the table. “Today the only item is from Fear which, essentially, comes down to too much peace in the world. Right?”
“Yes. Safety. And comfort.”
“And he blames this imbalance on Pleasure. Pleasure?”
Pleasure smiles and twists in her seat, her shoulders stretching the spangly silk across her breasts.
“Very well. Fear?”
“Thank you, Growth. To be succinct, I want to bring more monsters into the periphery of this world. Too few risks end in pain and children are losing their respect for possibility. With safe pastimes and efficient medicine, the possibility of disaster seems slight to all but the children who are naturally mine anyway.”
Happiness laughs and elbows Wisdom. “Children!” he says.
Fear glares, then turns his shadowy eyes to Wisdom. “Really, all I need is permission for Decay to, ah, increase the odds of mishap.”
Wisdom nods gravely.
“I could probably help you out as well,” Growth offers. “If Wisdom approves.”
Wisdom nods again and Fear bows slightly in his direction. “That would be—”
“I could be a monster!”
Everyone turns and looks at Beauty.
“I could! I’ve been thinking about Fear’s troubles and—”
“I do not have troubles. I have merely a need to crack more doors, open more boxes, loosen more minds. These are not tasks for Beauty. You do make a handy façade now and then, but—”
“I can too help you! I could be a monster!”
“She already is,” giggles Happiness with another jab of his elbow into Wisdom’s side.
Beauty frowns at him. “Not yet I’m not, but I will be. I’ve got it all figured out.”
“No, dear,” says Fear, smoothing his crushed lapel with his spindly fingers. “You already inform some excellent monsters—the Countessa comes to mind—there is no need for you to imagine you must do more.”
“But the Countessa is your monster! I want to do one of my own!”
“On your own.”
“A monster without me is no monster, Beauty.”
“You’re right. Of course you’re right. I’m sorry. But usually I just help your monsters. This time I want to make my own—”
“Then have me come in like a servant and finish it for you, I suppose?”
“No! No, I’m—”
“You are degrading my station and treating me as another of your frivolities. Do you see?” He sweeps his arm through the conference room, attaching his hollow sockets briefly to every other pair of eyes. “Now Beauty shall also be Fear!”
“No— I— Oh, for—” Beauty flips her face to Growth, her hair arcing and reflecting the dying Amsterdam sun, and points viciously down the table at Fear.
Growth nods, shrugs. “Very well. Fear, let us hear Beauty’s story. You do have a story, I presume?”
“Of course I have a story, yes, thank you. Okay. I’ve been practicing . . . .”
“It’s the Avon Lady, Mommy!” Jimmy yelled as he ran back to his blocks, too young and too unfamiliar still with both his body and his thoughts to realize his brain was now twenty percent lighter than it had been before he’d opened the door. His body was already rushing to fill the extra space in his head with fluid to keep his brain safe from his small-boy antics.
Mrs. Small, his mother, came into the living room, wiping her hands on an apron, like a 50s sitcom. She smiled at the woman in the doorway. “Come in, come in. I’m sorry about him—he’s only just figured out how to open the door and doesn’t quite have all the etiquette down yet.”
“Jimmy,” she said, turning to her son, “what have I told you about answering the door?”
Mrs. Small sighed and laughed it off with a shrug. She smiled and said, “Please, have a seat.” The Avon Lady sat near an arm on a recently reupholstered couch that had once belonged to Mrs. Small’s mother. Mrs. Small sat on the opposite end of the couch and ran a hand through her newly permed hair.
The Avon Lady smiled her wide, toothy smile and opened her bag. Last week, when the Avon Lady had first stopped by, Mrs. Small had almost slammed the door when she’d seen that smile. But years of politeness helped change her initial repulsion to unease, to welcome. Mrs. Small wasn’t sure just what was wrong—yes, the woman’s teeth were too large (but so were Aunt June’s, and no one thought she was repulsive) and yes, her skin was rather pall (but so was anyone’s this time of year), and yes, her eyebrows were grotesquely steepled (but so were many of the models in the Avon catalogue). It was rather as if the Avon Lady was the perfect representation of her product, only horrible. Mrs. Small chose not to think of it.
“I brought samples of those lipsticks for you,” said the Avon Lady. “But I’m sure you’ll agree that I was right and Strawberry Passion is for you. You have such lovely skin.”
Mrs. Small squirmed as the Avon Lady smiled and titled her head, examining, it seemed, each of her pores.
“Great!” Mrs. Small said, breaking the lengthening silence. “May I?” She took the lipsticks from the woman’s outstretched hand, avoiding her talon-like nails. It was absurd of course, but she saw them scratching her palm, she saw bleeding, she saw infection. She smiled the image away. “Do you have a mirror?”
The Avon Lady’s eyes froze for a minute, then she reached for her bag. After many clinks and rattles she drew out her hand, holding a black-handled mirror. She hesitated, then handed it to Mrs. Small.
Mrs. Small almost dropped it, it was so heavy—heavy as a cast iron pan yet just a little hand mirror. How could the woman carry it around? The mirror’s handle was black metal vines intertwined, holding the mirror face in a tangled mass of flora. She sat it in her lap to put on the first color; she would need both hands to hold the mirror to her face.
She held one of the lipsticks in her hand, leaving the rest on the couch at the right of her lap, and twisted her wrist to read the label. Autumn Twilight. She opened it, turned it up. She put some on her upper lip and carefully rubbed that against her lower lip. She put the cap back on and set the lipstick to her left. She grabbed the mirror with both hands and hefted it up and liked what she saw. The deep autumnal brown brought out the normally invisible red in her hair. She turned her head to admire. Funny how a touch of color one place could bring out a hidden bit of color somewhere else. She looked at her lips once more before setting down the mirror, and froze. They looked strange somehow. Wider, perhaps. Carnivorous. Mrs. Small didn’t like it. She had often felt her mouth was too wide anyway. She set down the mirror.
Mrs. Small was about to say she didn’t like that color, but then she remembered the way it had made her hair look and hesitated. “I’d like to look at the others—before making a final decision,” she said.
“Do you have anything I can remove this with?”
The Avon Lady handed her a wipe. She took it and started removing the lipstick. The wipe smelled quite nice, a little like wine. No, not wine—stronger—sherry. That was it. The wipe smelled of sherry. For a minute, Mrs. Small was tempted to put it in her mouth and suck on it, but of course she didn’t.
The next lipstick she picked up was Bahama Sunset, a rosy, orange pink. Kind of a daring color, Mrs. Small thought as she looked in the mirror. It seemed to make her face more symmetrical and draw attention away from her nostrils. Nostrils! Never attractive on anyone and certainly not on me, thought Mrs. Small. She was quite pleased with the effect. Until she noticed her eyes. Every capillary seemed to throb, blood pushing to the surface.
She lowered the mirror and carefully set it in her lap. Then hedged on the decision to reject Bahama Sunset. Instead, she laid it next to Autumn Twilight, leaving the final decision for later.
She looked up at the Avon Lady and was surprised to notice that her eyes were somewhat bloodshot as well. And yet the whole was pretty enough. Mrs. Small considered whether her own face could carry the weight of bloodshot eyes.
Then shook her head and picked up the next case: Wintry Morn. Mrs. Small frowned. It did not sound like her type of color. She asked the Avon Lady for another wipe and enjoyed the smell before applying it to her lips. After cleaning, she casually licked her lips and was thrilled by a tingle of flavor that seemed to race up her tongue to the back of her skull. She opened Wintry Morn and looked at it, a pale blue color. She was about to cap it again, but instead surprised herself by putting it on. She lifted the mirror with her right hand and looked at herself. Her face had taken on the color of the lipstick—pale and deathlike. But her eyes! Her eyes seemed so large and alive! She had never seen them so full of color! So bright!
Mrs. Small was excited by the sight. She had always felt her eyes had potential and to see them finally vivid excited her. She smiled at herself, and gasped. The tricks of light and color made her teeth seem huge and grotesque, a better match to her wan, skull-like face than her lively eyes. Those eyes. Her eyes. She had a hard time pulling away from them. They were so beautiful. She was so beautiful. This was how she always knew she should look.
To the side of the mirror, on the floor, among his blocks, lay Jimmy, asleep, and before she could stop herself, “Jimmy!”
Jimmy struggled to lift his head and look at her.
“How do I look?”
Jimmy stared at her, then lay back down.
Mrs. Small looked back at the mirror and into her eyes. They demanded attention. They demanded adoration.
“So lovely,” she murmured.
She sat the mirror down and took another wipe from the Avon Lady’s already outstretched hand. She sucked on it distractedly a moment before cleaning her lips. “Only have to keep my mouth closed, to hide the teeth,” she thought. “That’s not so bad. Not really. It’s quite demure.”
She paused before laying the used wipe down. Slowly, she turned her head to the two remaining shades of lipstick. “Eenie meenie miny mo.” She smiled and picked one up.
Amontillado Rouge. Cute name. She opened it and turned it up. It was a wonderfully deep color—color like living, bloody night. She put it on. She could feel it coating her lips as if with a protective shield, sinking into cracks and becoming one with her skin. She didn’t need to look in the mirror. She liked this one. She smiled at the Avon Lady.
“I like this one.”
“I like it a lot.”
The Avon Lady smiled her pleasant smile, so gentle, so kind, so intoxicating. “Look anyway.”
Mrs. Small lifted the mirror with three fingers—like a teacup—and looked at herself. And she was lovely. The rich tone of the lipstick brought life to her face, as if the essence of her soul was creeping upwards and escaping through her skin. She had never looked so alive! So young! It made her hair, by contrast, look like bleached kelp—but her face! She examined it carefully, lovingly, longingly. Each shade of pink, each curve of bone, each blushing pleasure. What a face! I am a beautiful woman, she thought. So beautiful. So beautiful….
Somewhere, far away, a phone rang. Mrs. Small did not hear it. She was lost in her own image. Yes, that her helenic face was wrapped in flat, waxen strings was a pity, but easy enough to ignore, for finally she was beautiful. After memorizing herself, Mrs. Small reluctantly set the mirror down and took three wipes from the woman sitting next to her; that lovely, lovely woman. So lovely. She cleaned her lips with the first, then placed the next in her mouth, then another. Such a wonderful, wonderful flavor. Such a soothing sensation. Relaxing. What I deserve. Mrs. Small leaned back against the couch and sucked as hard as she could, pressing the wipes against the roof of her mouth; she felt the drips, like happiness distilling, trickle down her throat.
When she opened her eyes, the wipes were dry and, with a sigh, she peeled them off her palate. She looked down at the final sample, so far below her, on the couch, beside her leg. So far away. She watched the journey of her hand as it moved down, and over; fingers touching, lifting, returning.
“Ah. Strawberry Passion.”
“Yes. I’m sure you’ll like it.”
“And they’ve all been so wonderful already. Really.” Mrs. Small heard her voice and it was calm and pleasant and petite and beautiful. Such a lovely voice. No doubt softened by the wipes. I must buy some wipes. I must remember to ask about the wipes.
She opened the Strawberry Passion. So pretty. She looked to her son, sleeping on the floor. So pretty. She turned the case; the lipstick twisting up toward her. She brought it to her lips. She applied it to top, to bottom, to top again. Her lips felt love envelop them, sink deep into them, enter the crevices of her face and trickle into her flesh, down and over and through. Beauty coursing through her body. Exuding through her skin. This is wonderful, she thought. I am a lady. I am beautiful. Inside and out. Beauty is in me. And I am beautiful.
I am beauty.
She picked up the mirror like a lady, two fingers, dainty, and gazed into it. She felt the image hit her, take her breath; she nearly dropped the mirror. She struggled, grasping at it with both hands, and stared.
She looked like death. It was as if her skull were fighting to the surface through waxy, corrupted skin. Her mouth was long and wide, splitting her face with a gory gash; her hair had a sweaty, rotted look as it clung to her brow and cheeks. Her teeth poked through her lips as if groping for prey.
Mrs. Small was about to drop the mirror and run for the bathroom to wash her face when she noticed that the highlights in her hair were back. The red. That slight bit of sunset was shining though again.
Well, that was something.
And her face was slimmer, wasn’t it? Even her nostrils? And the babyface curse was finally lifted! And the way her eyebrows arched—it had seemed absurd at first, but now she saw that it added nicely to the overall effect, as if she were politely surprised to be a goddess. And now that she was looking closer, the color of her lips was radiating outward, bringing a deep and meaningful virility to the rest of her, as if she could see life creeping from her lips like lichen, outwards, over her skull-like countenance, leaving a deep beauty she could not name, only hold her breath at.
She looked wonderful.
She had never looked better.
“Oh…” she said. She ran one hand through her hair, and late afternoon caught the highlights in her hair, playing a warm orange light across the surface of the mirror. “Wonderful.” She looked over at her son, sleeping on the floor with his mouth open again, drooling slightly. So peaceful, so calm, so cute, so desirable, so delicious. “Wonderful,” she sighed again.
Mrs. Small turned to the Avon Lady. “I want this one. I want Strawberry Passion.”
She took the wipes offered, but did not remove the makeup. Instead she inhaled them, breathing deeply before placing them on her tongue. She sighed and sank back into the couch’s fresh upholstery and closed her eyes, imagining her face, her perfect face.
“You look wonderful,” said the Avon Lady.
“There is the question of payment.”
“Strawberry Passion is a tad on the expensive side.”
“You do want it?”
Mrs. Small sighed through her largest smile in years. “Yes.”
Mrs. Small heard the Avon Lady stand and wade through her son’s blocks. She knew where she was going, what she was doing. She would have opened her eyes—just enough to say goodbye—but instead tightened her suck on the wipes. There would be time enough for that later, she lied to herself, and relaxed deeper into the couch.
And Mrs. Small felt the life from her lips spread over her body, the love on her tongue enter her veins, and she was happy.
Beauty sits back into her chair and listens to the silence.
Finally Growth clears his throat. “Well, Fear?”
Fear surveys the room. No one looks at him. Even Happiness is caught up in a sudden enthusiasm for his fingernails. He sighs. “I would, of course, be happy to make it for her, but if she insists . . . .” He raises his hands, palms up, and shrugs. He and Growth look to Wisdom, and Wisdom offers Beauty his solemn nod.
“Very well,” says Growth. “Anyone else?”
“I have a monster!”
“I’m sure you do, Happiness. No one? Then I suppose we are finished. You had nothing more, Fear? Very well.
“Keep your eyes open for Waste and Loss, of course, and we will see you next time. Decay? Will we be here?”
“Amsterdam, yes. I have a hovel downtown for us.”
“Very well. I will avoid recommending the neighborhood to any liberal-minded street artists.” Growth raps the table with his knuckles, pushes away from the table and stands. “If you have business before then, Decay will be in charge, so . . . .” He trails off, nods and leaves After a beat, the others follow, one by one, Pleasure floats, Happiness bounds, then Beauty, Mourning, Wisdom, Fear, and, finally, Decay, dragging his fingers along every surface.