“The Ultimate American Beauty” by Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet

This is the latest in Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet. To go to the column page, please click here.

Andrea shifted her American-Beauty sample case from her right shoulder to her left, which did not ache yet, and clicked the key fob to lock the company sedan.  Painted a soft yellow to offset the huge decals of dew-dropped roses on both doors, the car announced to the world that something new was blooming in the cosmetic marketplace that promised women an opportunity to experience the vibrancy of their true selves.

Andrea Morgan was also encased in yellow, a ceramic rosebud pinned to her lapel, the heels of her sandals five inches high to show off her youthful calves. What had her boyfriend, Paul, said this morning as she carefully applied “Profound Depth” in sable black to her blond eyelashes?

“You look like a Kardashian,” he laughed, standing right behind her at the bathroom sink.

She gave him a quick disdainful glance in the mirror. His “I want your lemons” T-shirt sported tiny burned holes where he allowed ashes from his blunt to land and smolder.  His shoulder length hair was even perfect when he woke up. He never combed it. He was wearing jockey shorts and his long, thin feet were stuffed into a pair of her new hot pink wedgies she’d just bought with his hand on his hip. “How do I look?” he asked. “Think I could get a job there?”

Paul was safe. They’d never had sex. She met him when she first moved to New York and they became more like girlfriends. And when he asked her to move in with him it hadn’t changed. He smoked pot and she worked. She did tell him she wanted to have kids someday, but only because that’s what most girls wanted. Not Andrea.

“I sell make-up.  I have to look like this. And take those goddamn shoes off. They cost me a month’s worth of commissions.”

“But baby, they’re so me. And it is Halloween! I could easily work myself into a Kardashian with a little help from that kit of yours. We could go as two of the sisters. I’d be the pretty one, of course.”

“Why don’t you smoke another joint?  Someone’s got to work, unless you want to take over my last job at McDonalds. They’ve got an opening?”

He shook his head slowly and backed out of the bathroom.  Gave her a princely bow, slipped off her heels and shrugged away. She wished Paul had some motivation to do something, anything besides get high.

She loved this job. She got to dress up and make-over women from all the rich neighborhoods. Everyday was Halloween. Today, she pulled her yellow car up to a mansion. It loomed three-stories and was filigreed with marble arches over windows, a balcony balustrading end to end along the second floor, an entry lined with thick columns and lush potted plants—there was almost no sweeping swath of grass, no slate pathway, no property to speak of separating it from its post-war tract house neighbors. Ten feet from her car, she was ringing the doorbell.

She waited, then rang again, and reached out absently to feel the giant fern nestled next to the curliqued aluminum mailbox.  The leaf was plastic.

It was the first time a man had ever called her for an appointment. She thought about running away, when a clop-clop-clop sounded from the opposite side of the door. Panic squeezed an extra heartbeat between the others battering around inside her. Her fingers sought the ceramic rosebud on her lapel for comfort. She was a professional.

The door cracked open. A round little face peered through the gap, a girl, five or six years old with the widest blue eyes and pouty lips. Lipstick shaped her mouth perfectly. False eyelashes fanned above her eyes.

“Oh, look at you,” Andrea said. “You’re adorable. What’s your name?”

The girl stumbled away on high-heeled shoes that looked even more uncomfortable than Andrea’s sandals. “Daddy! Momma’s here.” Andrea frowned. Momma?

The door drifted open to reveal a bright foyer, leading to a carpeted stairway and an arched corridor separated by a curio cabinet. A silver-framed photo of the girl in a ruffled pink dress featured prominently. That must be why I’m here. They want ideas for the girl’s pageant makeup.

A man strolled from the hallway. “We’ve been expecting you, Miss…”

Andrea fished a business card from her pocket. “Andrea Morgan, American-Beauty.”

The man’s expression remained flat, as if the bronzed skin of his face could not flex. He was tall and well groomed, well dressed, handsome in a window-shopping sort of way. A mini-shudder shook her shoulders. She bit her lip, and swung the sample case forward. “We had an appointment?”

The man took her card without reading it. “I’m Quinlin. Wendy is my daughter.”

“She’s darling,” Andrea said. “Do I look like her mother, or something?” She didn’t think of herself as old enough to be a mother, but it was flattering just the same to think she could have a beautiful child like that.

“There’s a resemblance,” Quinlin said.

“Blonde?” Andrea asked.

“Female?” He retreated down the hallway. Andrea followed, feeling clumsy in her heels. “I carry a line of kids’ cosmetics. All natural ingredients–”

“That won’t be necessary,” Quinlin said. They emerged into a high-ceilinged room featuring a leather sofa and polished wood end tables. A woman lay on the sofa, forearm pressed to her face. Her breasts under a nylon workout top were huge, like pillows taped to her ribs beneath a tank top stretched to its limit. Bandages wrapped her waist, which was thin to the point of emaciation. Her thighs packed like sausage into a spandex casing. Her hair and eyebrows were Platinum Blond.

“Andrea, meet Mae,” Quinlin said, motioning at the woman. His gaze found the little girl sitting on a stool beside a granite counter in the adjoining kitchen. “Eat your lunch.” The floor plan was open, hardwood butting ceramic tile where the two areas merged.

Mae wallowed to a sitting position. She winced. Her breasts stood up against any law of gravity. Her cheeks were swollen. Purple bruises shadowed both eyes. Despite the disfiguration, Andrea could see she was young, maybe eighteen or twenty. Did he beat her? Quinlin wasn’t the beating type. Cosmetic surgery was the obvious answer.

“Make her beautiful,” Quinlin said. “It’ll be worth your while. Where beauty is concerned, I spare no expense. Never give up, never surrender, right Andrea?”

“Never,” Mae said. It sounded like ‘nebber’ coming from those overstuffed lips.

“I…” Andrea looked from place to place, half-expecting a camera. She set the sample case on a low coffee table, more to get its weight off her shoulder than to set up for a demonstration. The girl watched her from her stool, a half-peeled diet protein bar in her tiny hand. Lunch? Andrea thought.

Mae made no room for her on the couch, so Andrea sat on the lacquered coffee table and spread out her kit. Mae watched with little apparent interest although Wendy tracked every move, seeming to catalogue every tube of lipstick, every bottle of mascara.

“I have just the thing for you,” said Andrea. “A little mousse foundation would be perfect.”

Mae didn’t say anything, so Andrea dabbed some on her fingertip then spread it in gentle circles under Mae’s eyes.

“Look at that,” said Andrea. “Lovely.”

She reached in her kit for a hand mirror. Wendy slid off the stool and came over.

“That looks like crap,” the little girl said. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Andrea stared. You ran into this kind of thing in a house like this, of course–spoiled children who had never heard the word ‘no’ in their lives.

“Well,” said Andrea, smiling as sweetly as she was able. “Let’s let Mae decide, shall we?”

Mae glanced in the hand mirror that Andrea held up. “What else you got?” she asked.

“Oh, about everything you could want,” said Andrea.

Andrea rode that pony as far as it would take her. She emptied out her kit. Translucent mineral powder, matte mascara, triple face protector serum, stay-true bronzer, extra-luminous blush. The little girl watched everything. Mae nodded along. She came out looking like a garish streetwalker in a Luc Besson flick. Wendy snorted and went back towards the stool, maybe to look for another protein bar. Mae glanced over her shoulder. “Shut-up, little daddy’s girl.”

“What is going on here?” asked Andrea grabbing handfuls of her samples and stuffing them into her bag.

“Don’t bother packing up. You’re already part of the posse. They’re all waiting in the basement.” Mae blubbered.

Andrea could hear Quinlin’s footsteps slowly tapping up the steps.

“The basement?” Andrea crushed her bag to her chest and ran for the front door. She turned the knob, but nothing happened. She yanked and pulled.

“We’re always trying to get away from those places that scare us most, aren’t we, Andrea?” This was a Halloween hell come to life! “We haven’t even bought any cosmetics, yet? Mae, you look positively radiant.”

Mae smiled and tilted her head.

“So Andrea, I need to write you a check for the products. You’ve transformed Mae completely.”

They both looked at Mae. Make-up sat on top of her face like a malignancy. Something that palpated and amplified her swelling features into some kind of blow-up doll.

“Have you ever thought about doing films, Andrea? You’ve got the face that could launch a thousand videos,” Quinlin chuckled to himself.

Andrea smiled while sweat accumulated in every orifice. “No thanks, I have another appointment, but I so appreciate your time.”

Quinlin took out a rack of keys on a chain. “Come here, Andrea. I want to show you something.” He unlocked the door off the kitchen that he’d just come up from.

Wendy came up from behind Andrea and pushed her toward the door. “Come on, mommy, really, you haven’t even seen dad’s workshop downstairs. He can carve any pumpkin.”

Andrea clutched her sample case. She slapped the kid’s hand away.

“No reason to get nasty with your daughter, Andrea,” Quinlin said.

“What?” she thought as he encircled her waist tightly and led her slowly down the stairs.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs there was a stark, lit room with three bandaged bodies lying in hospital beds. Two nurses were flitting around with another body up on a gurney.

“Michelle and Erika, I’d like you to meet Andrea.” The two nurses looked up and smiled. They both had the same over-botoxed, over-bosomed look as Mae did. Quinlin added, “They were once Michael and Eric, but after multiple hormone injections and constructive surgery, they have become the American beauties they always imagined as kids, but were never able to accomplish. This is my way of giving back. Most of these boys didn’t have the money to make the transition without my help. And you, Andrea, have the chance to become my partner. You can move in here, with your boyfriend, Paul, take care of Wendy and change the face of American-Beauty.

“How do you know, Paul? And how did you find me?”

Wendy pulled her by the arm into the next room. She looked around. There were some chairs and a projector screen pulled down.

“Please,” Quinlin said and pushed her into a chair. Wendy sat down next to her while Quinlin clasped Andrea’s sweaty hand. “Put down your case, mommy. You don’t need that. You know,” Wendy whispered, “Kids think Halloween is all about candy? But for me, it’s all about family and costumes.”

“Can I sit here?” asked Mae. She was smiling now and seemed overly zealous, compared to her day-of-the-dead demeanor earlier. The projector started to purr and the show began. Wendy offered Andrea some candy corn. She ignored the kid.

It was some seriously low-budget deal going here. Wendy and Mae appeared first.

“Andrea, we love you,” they announced together, blowing kisses at the screen. What the fuck was this?

Mae stepped forward with her fish lips and said, “We have a special guest here for your Halloween delight.”

Mae pulled some other girl into the frame. “Isn’t she exquisite? This beauty has been waiting to share her inner luscious lips with you for sometime.”

The girl was wearing an outfit that looked familiar. Her hair was platinum blonde, fiber-filled and flat as the fake plants outside. She looked like a serial killer in a wig with way too much make-up on.

She smiled and waved at the camera. “Andrea,” she said. “You are my sister, my love and you have now met my immediate family. Look around you.”

Andrea stared at the screen.

“Andrea,” the girl on the screen got down on one knee. “Remember what you told me. We are all nothing but a camouflage and with the right ingredients you can transform anyone into the ultimate American Beauty. And you said you wanted kids?”

Andrea’s eyebrows twisted into two half-eaten french fries. Wendy squeezed her hand even tighter.

“Baby, Halloween is American-Beauty Day, don’t you see?” Andrea raked her eyes up and down and around this creature dressed in her lemon yellow mini, hot yellow turtleneck sweater and the platform suede pink wedgies she’d just bought a week ago. Quinlin stepped into the frame and put his arm around her boyfriend, Paul. The one she’d left this morning wearing a holey t-shirt and jockey shorts.

“It’s all about love, baby. Mae was Malcolm up until this wizard next to me, Quinlin, took him on and changed her life forever. And soon I’ll be Pauline. But, you know we’ll always be family. Wendy needs a mother and the rest of us need make-overs. I’m just kidding!” Quinlin smirked.

Andrea dissociated through the rest of the film. She thought she’d been so careful. That no one knew. She’d moved from the Midwest to the east to escape the clutches of the conservative beast she’d grown up under. She didn’t know if she was ready for this.

Quinlin turned back on the lights.  They all started clapping. “Welcome home, Andrew.”


Gay Degani has published on-line and in print including her own collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is the founder-editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place where a list of her online and print fiction can be found. Nominated twice for a Pushcart, her story, “Something about L.A,” won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize.

Stephen V. Ramey is the editor of the twitterzine, trapeze, and an annual anthology from Parsec Ink. His fiction has been published in various places, including The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Connotation Press, A Capella Zoo, and Pure Slush. He lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, the 62nd-ish most historic city in the United States, with his novelist wife and three novel cats. Find him at http://www.stephenvramey.com.

Court Merrigan‘s short story collection MOONDOG OVER THE MEKONG is forthcoming from Snubnose Press and he’s got short stories out or coming soon in Thuglit, Needle, Weird Tales, Plots With Guns, Big Pulp, Noir Nation, and a bunch of others. His story “The Cloud Factory,” which appeared in PANK, was nominated for a Spinetingler Award. Links at http://courtmerrigan.wordpress.com . He also runs the Bareknuckles Pulp Department at Out of the Gutter. He lives in Wyoming with his family.

Meg Tuite‘s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. She is the author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press, Reverberations (2012) Deadly Chaps Press, Implosion and other Stories, Sententia Books (2013) and has edited and co-authored The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.

The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011 is available for purchase.

More of Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet at Used Furniture.

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