I met him at the Alameda County Fair, an oddly wholesome place to meet a sorcerer. I was taking a summer class in portraiture at the art school where I was studying for my BFA. In mid-July, our instructor made arrangements with the fair’s management to let her students set up a booth. We worked in shifts, drawing chalk pastel portrait sketches for ten bucks each, a bargain for our customers and great practice for us. Since our booth sat between the line for the merry-go-round and a ring-toss game, we also learned how to repel kids with sticky hands who wanted to draw on our paper.
On a hot Saturday afternoon, when the merry-go-round was playing its oom-pah-pah version of “Die Lorelei” for the hundredth time, a man sat himself down in the chair across from me and my drawing board and handed me a ten-dollar bill. A good-looking guy, tall, slender, with sandy-brown hair and brown eyes, he dressed with a total lack of style. He was wearing dirty jeans and a nerdy shirt: brown and white plaid with short sleeves and a big mustard stain on the pocket.
“Can you leave this out when you draw me?” He pointed to the stain and grinned. He had a cute dimple at the corner of his mouth. “I bought a corn dog. It was a mistake on a couple of counts.”
“No problem! Would you like full face, profile, or three-quarters?”
He looked startled, thought about it, then shrugged. “Whatever you feel like drawing,” he said. “You’re the one who knows about art.”
“Full face, I think, sir.” We’d been told to be polite, you see, and call our customers sir or ma’am. But when I said “sir” I got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if I’d just turned myself into his servant. From the way he smiled at the word, I knew he saw it the same way.
I retreated into the drawing process. I’ve always been good at using my art to escape from whatever unpleasantness is going on around me. I learned how when I was a kid and my family was falling apart over my father’s insistence on studying ritual magic, which my mother considered utterly fake and faintly ridiculous. As an adult, I realized that the way they fought about his obsession meant the marriage had other, deeper problems. As a kid, I just shut down.
My customer made it easy for me to concentrate on the present moment. He sat stone-still, a good model, as I glanced back and forth from his face to the pale cream paper. For this fairground exercise we’d been told to work fast, receive quick impressions, keep the lines loose, sketch in the proportions and then try to capture something of the sitter’s personality. I’d done five successful sketches that afternoon, but as I worked on his, I kept going wrong.
I’d look at him and get a clear impression. Once I started to chalk in a line defining an eye, say, or the shape of his face, my hand stubbornly refused to draw what I’d seen. I felt like swearing at my fingers as they drew according to some idea of their own.
When I finished, I had a portrait sketch of someone strange, dangerous, and tormented. The shape of his skull had flattened out on top but pushed forward in front, more animal-like than human. Odd bluish shadows defined his cheekbones. Pain gleamed in his eyes, deep-set and dark, eyes that had looked on terrible things. His lips had drooped from their pleasant smile to a thin, tight, bitter line. I took his ten dollar bill out of our change box and held it up.
“Here’s your money back, sir,” I said. “This sketch is really bad. I must be tired or something.”
He laughed and waved the bill aside. “Let me see the picture first,” he said. “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”
“Uh, no. I’ve got an eye for this, and I can tell crummy work when I see it.”
He grinned and held out his hand. “Ah, come on! It’s not like I’m going to be insulted. You’re being straight with me.”
I unclipped the sketch from my drawing board and handed it to him. He looked at it and nodded at the image.
“It’s a perfect likeness,” he said. “You’ve got an eye, all right.”
I went cold all over. For a split-second his eyes and mouth looked like those in my drawing, although the shape of his head stayed human. He smiled, turned back into a perfectly normal nerdy guy, and said, “Aren’t you gonna spray this with something?”
“Yeah. Chalk pastels smear like crazy if you don’t fix them.”
I took the sketch back and stood up. We had a table set up under a beach umbrella where we kept our supplies out of the sun. I found an aerosol can of fixative and treated the drawing. I also managed to convince myself that I was imagining things. He didn’t really look like that drawing. He was just being polite.
“It’ll take a minute or two to dry,” I said, “and then I’ll roll it up and put it in one of these cardboard tubes.”
When I handed him the tube, he took it with a little nod of his head, smiled, and flipped the tube up to hold it vertically in front of him, like a dueling pistol in one of those historical flicks. For a moment he looked startled. His gaze caught mine and held me speechless in a web of pure desire. If he’d asked me to take off my clothes and have sex with him right there in public, I would have.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll see you later.”
He turned and hurried away as if he’d scared himself, too. I was trembling so hard that I had to sit down. Maya, I told myself, you’ve got to get out of here. Now. My heartbeat pounded the message: out out out.
Getting out, however, presented a problem. I had to wait till the next person showed up for her shift because I had to guard the cash box and our supplies. Brittany tended to run late. I waited for an hour before she came waltzing up. She flopped her backpack down on the table and flipped her long blonde hair back from her face.
“Sorry,” she said. “I had to wait for Buster’s new parents to pick him up.”
“Who? Oh! One of your dog rescues?”
“Yeah. A Rottie. He’s got his forever home.” She paused to look at me. “Are you okay? You didn’t eat any of the garbage they’re selling here, did you?”
“No, thank you very much, Miss Pure Organic.”
“Well, sor-ree! What’s wrong with you?”
“You’re late, and—” I hesitated. You don’t tell someone that you need to run away from a sorcerer you’ve just met. “I’ve got cramps.”
“Oh.” She stopped pouting and looked guilty. “Ohmigawd, I’m sorry, really sorry. What you need is some pennyroyal tea. I’ve got a couple of packets right here—”
“Uh, thanks, but I’d hurl. Anyway, here’s the cash box and the other stuff. Your turn. I’ve got to find a porta-potty.”
I grabbed my backpack and my hoodie and trotted off. I glanced back to see Brittany changing the name plate. We’d set up a miniature easel where we could place a piece of cardboard with the current artist’s name. Mine, the “Maya L. Cantescu” card, had sat in full view while I’d drawn him. He knew my name. I wanted to run or maybe vaporize.
I had to work my way through the crowds on the fairway. Kids ran in front of me. Adults bumped into me. A couple of drunk guys blocked my way and leered. When I stepped around them, one of them laid a hand on my butt. As I twisted away from him, I snatched some of his energy in return. He deserved the loss, the creep!