The Mykalskis – A Caricature Story

Mykalskis.png           In the art world there exists a scientific formula for depicting a human being. The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man. From below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth the height of a man. The distance from below the chin to the nose is one third of the face of a man, as well as the distance between the eyebrows and the hairline. The distance between the eyes is the same as the size of an eye, and the pupils align with the corners of the mouth of a man.

           In the science world there is no such clear-cut formula for understanding a human being. There are studies in psychology, philosophy, et cetera but when it comes to predicting an individual, homo sapien can and continues to be a very unpredictable specimen. What propels a man? What drives him forward? There exists a psychological explanation for nearly everything, but when it comes down to what compels a man to keep on loving in devastating situations is impossible to put into a definition. There exists no proportion, no idealistic ratio to predict the effect brain deterioration has on the space allotted in a metaphoric heart.

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           She had seen a lot of things in New York the past few months, but nothing has ever really compared to what happened when she passed through those secured doors so near to home in Iowa.

           There had been a man from Harlem showing her a glimpse of the homemade nunchaku in his messenger bag. She had unfortunately bore witness to a woman from Hoboken drop trou’ right off the tracks and relieve herself in front of an entire, packed PATH subway car. She had even been called Lindsay Lohan as she made her way down Park Avenue towards 23rd Street. But even through all of her adventures… she had missed home. She had especially missed her father. He had been gracious enough to drive all the way out to the East Coast to drag her home to the amber waves of cornfields in early May.

           As he expertly maneuvered the mountainous passes in Pennsylvania, her father had offhandedly mentioned that he had offered her art services to draw caricatures at the retirement home at which he was the maintenance manager. She agreed without much consideration. When she first started doing caricatures – it had been so much fun. It was something new and exciting, and she was getting paid to do something she had almost quite literally been doing her entire life. Sometimes she joked with her clients that she’d been born carrying a pencil out of the womb, and her mom often complained about the birthing process of a kid born with paint and ink in the umbilical cord. But after she drew all day, everyday as a means to pay bills it became more of a chore than anything else. She wasn’t invested in these strangers’ faces anymore. Only maybe one out of an entire day’s body of work seemed to contain even a speck of anything meaningful or worthwhile. She could make jokes and hope they laughed, hope some small part of them connected with her emotionally as she sacrificed most of her personal relationships in order to work inhuman hours and make some semblance of a livable, commission-based income. Sometimes she wondered which was more miserable: doing something you hated for the rest of your life or abusing the thing you loved doing so much you painstakingly grew to hate it. Drawing children was fun, when they cooperated of course, but their faces were for lack of better terms redundant. They were soft and squishy. They lacked real definition. She had drawn a number of smiley faces at Adventureland, Central Park, and Times Square. She had also drawn a number of pouty faces, children who questioned whether she even knew what she was doing, and others who swore at their parents from their perch on the bench in front of her.

           “Mom I don’t want this lady to draw me! I want to ride the Log Ride!”

           “Honey, it’ll take five minutes. Just sit tight and smile.”

           “Mom, quit being a bitch!”

           There were points where she just wanted to rush through the drawing as quickly as possible. As long as she included chubby cheeks the parents ‘ooohed’ and ‘ahhhhed’ like she was some reincarnation of Da Vinci sent forth to usher in a masterpiece that bore what was typically only a mediocre resemblance to their offspring. What was worse than rushing through drawings of awful clients, however, was not drawing anyone at all, staring at the wall, and hoping someone would sit down just so rent could be paid. It was fun at times, but those children grew old in their predictability and ‘art’ for the sole purpose of cheap entertainment didn’t always resonate in her heart as art at all.

           But the sole clientele of a retirement community would be the elderly, a population that doesn’t often frequent Altoona’s amusement park, let alone pay for themselves to caricatured. It’s a common misconception that all caricatures ridicule their subject. The way she herself approached each drawing was to closely examine the face, with all its supposedly orderly components portrayed in Da Vinci’s  “Vitruvian Man”, and portray the non-idealistic features that set that persons’ face apart from just ‘a man’. The amount of variance within cracked faces, wrinkly jowls, and giant crows’ feet was enough to drive this particular artist wild. There would be faces that would be challenging to represent. There would be clients with wisdom and clarity to impart. She was in. Baited hook line and sinker; pro bono, no hesitation.

           But in all of the savagery that the spoiled rotten patrons of Adventureland and denizens of the Tri-State area had exposed to her, she had forgotten what humanity was still in existence.

           It was an hour drive and roughly twenty minute drive from Ames to Audubon. It wasn’t a particularly interesting trek. Familiar small town landmarks passed one after the other – she only hit two stop signs on the way there. There was still a bit of culture shock even in coming home to where she had been born and raised. Where were the museums? Where was the scent of street foods she become accustomed to? Audubon was mostly known for its statue of Albert the Bull, a forty-five ton concrete statue, proportionally authentic to a cattle specimen right down to his toenails. The town was known to be pranked around football’s Homecoming season, with a number of high school hooligans spray painting Albert’s scrotum an unnatural cerulean. Here was where she parked her car, thousands of miles from the Metropolitan Museum, and home of the world’s largest case of “Blue Balls”. She wasn’t in Manhattan anymore.

           She called her father. He sired her in. After an hour and a half of drawing the elderly patiently waiting in line in the main room, her father escorted her to several rooms where she would be making ‘house calls’. Several of the residents were too weak to leave their beds. One woman had been waiting in line, but had grown tired and shuffled back to her room to nap. They apologized for disturbing her and excused themselves.

           Her father knew the halls of the Friendship Home well and ushered her through several corridors. Initially she had thought they were winding their way back to her car, but the further they navigated into the building the more she reconsidered that inclination. Where was he taking her?

       She had seen a lot of things the past few months, but nothing really compared to what happened when she passed through those secured doors so near to home.

           The nurses greeted her father exuberantly.

           “They’ve been waiting for you!”

           “I’ve heard such good things!”

           “Such a pleasure to meet your daughter!”

           She swiveled on her feet to take in her surroundings, adjusting her weight from foot to foot to balance the giant sketchpad and juggling her Sharpies.  The whole space seemed sterile; like a 1920’s vision of the future she had seen once in an art history course. The walls and floors were stark white and smelled like a hospital waiting room. Disinfected. Clean. The furniture was straight out of her grandparent’s catalog, and it seemed homey but… off. There was a certain amount of sterility that unnerved the artist even in this attempted cozy environment. These particular retirement home patrons seemed different from the rest. Something was amiss.

           Out of the corner of her eye there was a woman cradling a baby. She bounced it on her knee and told it how beautiful it was. She cooed and coddled. The artist turned to face her for a brief moment, and realized that it was not actually a baby. It was only a plastic doll.

           One of the nurses ushered her over to where a table had been set up in front of yet another elderly couple. At first glance, they were cute and the artist took an immediate liking to them. The nurse told the artist she was very pretty. The nurse made a joke that the artist must not actually be of blood relation to her father with looks like that. The artist chuckled. The nurse introduced herself. The artist would go on to never remember the nurse’s name.

           She took her place at the chair, peeking over the sloped peak of the drawing surface at her subjects. The old woman looked away at the wall behind her, her eyes catching the fluorescent lighting and causing them to twinkle. Her hair was like icy gray slate in a halo at her scalp.  She enfolded herself in her own arms. A vacant, carefree smile was etched into her face and it remained there, unwavering in its untroubled placement. The old man looked right into her saleswoman smile and chuckled.

           “I’m Mike, and this here is Jean,” he said as he tightened his grip on his wife’s side, “We’re the Mykalskis. We once got one of these here drawings done in New Orleans, nearly thirty years ago. It still hangs in our apartment down the street. Try to make us look even younger than we did in that one, if you can… I know I’m not giving you much to work with,” he trailed off gesturing up and down the length of his grandfatherly body, bloated and soft-looking. The artist laughed, four year old children never made quite the same jokes at their own expense. Her marker grazed the surface paper.

           “I was in New Orleans once. The people and buildings were like… super cool. I bet it was even more eclectic and antiquey back then. Did the two of you meet there?” Slowly their nasal cavities were carved into the paper, framed on either side by their animated eyes.

           “Oh, heavens no.  I met my wife when I was back on leave from the army, way before then. She was working at the local ice cream shop. I took one look at her and I never even looked at another woman again. And all the free ice cream from that summer went right to my hips!” Mike’s eyes crinkled behind his glasses as his jovial smile lit up at his own joke. He in fact did carry the stereotypical old man gut. The woman didn’t seem to react to his retelling and continued to smile at the spot on the wall behind the artist’s head. The artist glanced behind herself quickly, trying not to draw out the caricature procedure, trying to establish whether or not something was distracting the poor woman.

           The aforementioned, name-forgotten of course, nurse stood with several of her friends behind the counter. Their scrubbed up bodies leaned over onto the faux granite tops. Their eyes were locked on her paper and each pupil suddenly shifted onto her. She awkwardly avoided eye contact. She quickly turned back around.

           “You’re actually looking great, man. How long ago was that?”

           “Well, we’ll be married for close to sixty-seven years… Yes, sixty-seven this October.”

           “You don’t look a day over forty,” the artist deadpanned, ceasing to move.

           “Do you lie to your mother with that mouth?” He leaned forward, his fingers encased Jean’s hand, but he looked the artist right into her face and asked her questioningly, searching her eyes for her secrets. She promptly got back to work.

           “Excuse me sir, that’s awfully personal,” the artist winked at the husband and he guffawed before leaning back and turning to face his wife, whispering something intimate in her ear. She giggled indifferently and continued to stare at the wall.

           The artist got lost in her drawing and studied her subjects. Mike Mykalski had a thin, potato shaped face. He had liver spots and wrinkles on every visible part of his body. But some part of him lit up when he interacted with his wife. Though Jean seemed like an empty shell of who she once must have been, it was easy to feel the love that he had for her. The artist almost felt like she was sitting in front of a cornfield bonfire, there was warmth and comfort that emanated from their embrace, no matter how one-sided it gave the impression of being.

           “I love you, you know,” he said to the side of her face. She nodded and stared ahead, her expression blank and confused.

           Their faces had appeared on the paper. From below the chin to the top of their heads was one-eighth the height of them. The distances from below the chins to the noses was one third of their faces, as well as the distance between the eyebrows and the hairline. The distances between their eyes is the same as the size of their eyes, and the pupils align with the corners of their mouths.

           The artist took a moment to examine her work and compare the likeness between the life models and their doodled-in counterparts. She turned the poster paper to face the couple.

           For the first time all day, Jean looked right into her eyes. Her eyes were still vacant, but her smile showed signs of being legitimately full of glee this time around. It wasn’t just childlike and innocent, it was full of appreciation. The husband looked at Jean and begin to tear up. The artist looked back at the nurses behind her.

           They were all crying. Every one of them. Her father beamed at her proudly.

           The artist thanked the couple for letting her draw them. She went in to shake Mike’s hand and he pulled her into a tight embrace.

           “Thank you so very, very much.”

           She was never a very emotional person. She always felt uncomfortable when other people cried in front of her, she was never sure how to display empathy with feelings she had never felt in public. More relevantly and honestly, she was really confused about everything that had just transpired here

           As she collected her things and her father returned to her side. Mike joined them in walking out.

           “I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetie,” he called over his shoulder and merrily trotted out towards the exit.

           One of the nurses caught up with them on their way out as she dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex.

           “It’s just like the Notebook, he says that everyday and he always comes back. He goes through this everyday.” Above the nurse, the artist noticed the sign above her head for the first time.

           THE FRIENDSHIP HOME: ALZHEIMER’S UNIT. Then she too, the artist, cried.


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