An Understanding by Samuel Snoek-Brown

Like the people he drew, the caricaturist outside the museum had good days and bad days. On good days, the people would laugh and clap their hands, touch his shoulder— they would point to their hairdos or their cocked grins and say, “Oh, that’s me exactly! That’s me to a tee!” On bad days (and he’d learned to see this coming, even as he sketched them), some people would stand away when he’d finished and scowl at themselves. Their noses were too big. Their breasts were too prominent. “Who the hell do you think you are?” they’d say. They’d demand their money back, and he’d give it to them; then, in revenge, he’d hang their discarded portraits in his sample gallery for everyone to see.

Other artists came to compete, but the museum security chased them all away. The caricaturist had come to his understanding two years before, and since then, he alone sat outside the museum on his stool at his easel, on the top step, catching visitors as they waited in line or slipped out into the evening. The patrons would sit, giddy with the spontaneity, with the excuse for vanity and self-deprecation in the same ten-dollar gesture of his pen on the easel. The other artists complained about his monopoly, often loudly. When the guards were feeling generous, they would gesture to the doors. “Come in,” they’d say to the other artists. “Apply for a permit and copy the art. Draw cartoons of Rembrandt—what jowls on that guy! What a hat he wears!” When the guards were out of sorts or low on coffee, they simply shooed the competitors away. “Go out in the park where you belong,” they’d say. “Draw the guy doing yoga. Draw the guy selling balloons.” Once, the guards came out in force and silently erected a velvet rope around the caricaturist. One of them stood by, his arms crossed, and scowled. When the competitors shouted, he went along the inside of the rope, pole to pole, inching the rope outward, shuffling the competitors into the line, where they turned and stormed away, or forcing them by inches off the top step, down the next, until they fell and spilled to the sidewalk, pages and inkwells scattered on the pavement.

Once every so often—rarely, but perhaps as much as four or five times a year—the caricaturist would lose all the color in his own face and he would tear away the portrait he worked on and turn his easel from the customers. He would hunch over the white tablet on the easel, his brush a fury against the paper. The bristles were stiff and they scratched at the grain of the pulp like fingernails in beard stubble. His breathing came quickly; his shoulders quaked. Sometimes an elbow would wing out from behind the easel like a rifleman taking aim.

When he finished, he would rip the portrait from the tablet and push past the crowd, through the doors, past reception and behind the long ebony ticket counter and into the cloakroom where visitors lined up with plastic yellow tags, giving or receiving their garments and bags. Past the back row of coats, concealed from view, was a door with a keypad. He would ignore the keypad and knock quickly, four times, and call out: “It’s happening.”

Sometimes he would say, “It’s happening next Thursday.”

Sometimes he would say, “It’s happening in forty-five minutes.”

Once, he whispered, “It’s happening the third Wednesday in March, two years from now,” and then he looked at the portrait in his hands and waited. By the time the door opened, he was gone, the portrait folded neatly on the floor with a ballpoint note on the outside that read, “Never mind.”

After he knocked on the door and the security officers collected his drawing, they would take it to a special copy machine in the archive department, reduce the image to an eight-by-ten portrait, and share the grainy copies among the staff. Later—next Thursday or in forty-five minutes—they would find the person, in the crowd outside or in the antiquities wing or in the back alley late at night or, more than once, in the gift shop, and they would put a hand on the person’s shoulder. They would guide the person past reception and behind the long ebony ticket counter and into the cloakroom and through the hidden door. They would show the person their portrait, not a caricature but a perfect copy, every detail of their face—their eyes, their freckles and moles, each hair—precise. Their neckline, their shirt collar. Everything from the collarbones up an exact replica of the person in the chair in the security office.

The police would come, take names and addresses, get warrants, search homes, find stolen property: paintings and small sculptures and priceless artifacts and expensive souvenirs. None of it from this museum, though.

During their interrogation, these people would ask, “How?” The police would lay out a litany about the departmental cooperation between the cops and the guards, about investigative procedures and complicated criminal profiling, about stakeouts and hunches. But it always came back to the portrait. “How in the hell did you get that drawing of me?”

This conversation always occurred in a bright, cold room in the police precinct while, on the steps of the museum many miles away, the caricaturist repaid an angry customer. “My lips don’t look anything like that, you son of a bitch!” they’d say. “What are you, blind?”

 

*Samuel Snoek-Brown is the author of the novel Hagridden and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin. He also works as production editor for Jersey Devil Press, and he lives online at snoekbrown.com. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Portland Review, Eunoia Review, Red Fez, Timberline Review, and others. He is the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship. Snoek-Brown also have been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, twice for short fiction and once for his novella, as well as being a finalist in the 2013 StorySouth Million Writers Award.