It was the summer I was fourteen that I came to know The Man Without a Face. Everybody called him that for the obvious reason. Nobody was quite sure how it had happened, although the prevailing theory was a car accident plus exploding gasoline. He came in his ancient car to the village near our summer cottage to shop once a week and would stalk into the grocery as though he didn’t know that everyone in sight was carefully avoiding looking at him.
The first week we were up there for vacation we almost collided with him as we came out of the grocery. Grudgingly he held the door for Mother. He didn’t offer to carry any of the heavy bags filled with groceries. The moment we were through, the door slammed behind us.
“You’d think,” Mother said, piling bags in the back of the station wagon, “that he’d do something about it. After all. There is plastic surgery. That’s what it’s for. Not just Aunt Tandy’s face-lift.” Aunt Tandy was one of the staples of the summer community. Unkind people said she’d had her face lifted so often that they used a zipper instead of stitches.
“Gruesome,” Gloria said. She had come along to the village for the ride so that she could linger over one diet soda at the malt shop in case her current interest, known as Peerless Percy, happened along. Gloria’s my sister and one of the main reasons I wanted to get away from home. And now, thanks to her last-minute change of mind, I was in a real mess.
Until this summer Gloria, who is almost seventeen, was going away to boarding school which was why I didn’t strain myself about getting into St. Matthew’s where, according to family tradition, I was supposed to go at fourteen. With Gloria gone, life would be bearable at home. But then, right before school closed, she finked out and said she didn’t want to go to boarding school in the fall after all, after I had more or less deliberately flunked the St. Matthew’s entrance exams.
When Mother told me about Gloria’s not leaving, I nearly blew my lid. “She’s been going to go to that blasted school all her life,” I said. “I’ve been counting on it.”
“Well, she’s not going now. She says she’d rather stay at home. Frankly, Chuck, I’m delighted. And it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if you tried to get on with her. She’s older and—let’s face it—brighter than you are and can help you a lot with the subjects you seem to be failing.”
Tact wasn’t one of Mother’s strong subjects. But knowing that Gloria’s IQ tests always came out at about genius level (at least that’s what Mother told her friends), and mine just average, didn’t bug me as much as some other things.
“I don’t want to be helped,” I said. “Not by Gloria,” and split before I got the usual arguments.
That was in the spring. Now it was summer, with still no solution in sight. . . .
Mother and I drove back to the cottage, winding along the shore road. Our community isn’t grand enough to sport a yacht club, but there’s a white frame house built along the edge of the harbor that acts as a sort of club for the -Timer people, most of whom have small boats of one kind :r another. I was, as usual, thinking about my problem, I've got to go to St. Matthew’s,” I said, after a while. “Well, you had your chance and you muffed it. You sat for the entrance exam and you flunked it. So how are you going to manage it?”
Yes, how? She had me there, and we both knew it.
As we drove back to the cottage I felt a general depression settle down over me, and took refuge in what I hoped was a dignified silence, glancing in the rear-view mirror every now and then to see if she noticed.
Mother’s very pretty—curly brown hair and brown eyes and a triangular face. People say it’s like a cameo—whatever that is. Gloria looks like her and so does Meg, my younger sister. I look like my father, with blond straight hair, kind of greenish eyes and what my last stepfather, The Hairball, used to call a stupid expression. That was after he and Mother decided to divorce. Until then he had tried to be a pal. Mother said once, shortly after they had separated a year ago, and after she had had two martinis and was beginning a third, that I was one of the reasons for the divorce.
“He’s marvelous with boys, Chuck. Everyone except you. The kids on the campus liked him. He could always talk to them when they turned off most older people. And I really thought he’d be great for you, since you need a father so badly. But trying to reach you is like trying to break into the First National Bank. Nowhere. You just sit there with that . . . that ...” She was trying not to say “stupid,” because one of the analysts at school had told her she shouldn’t use value judgments on me like that. But her control wasn’t the greatest at that minute. “That stupid look, Charles. And the best man in the world can only take so much of that.”
I shrugged. That’s one of the things I’ve learned how to do really well. It saves a lot of trouble and it drives both Mother and Gloria up the wall.
“Don’t shrug your shoulders at me,” Mother said, her voice rising, as it always does when she has a few drinks.
“Sorry,” I said, and got out of the room before she could get a real grip on the conversation.
That exchange had taken place last year just as we came up to the Island for the summer and right after my stepfather informed her that instead of coming up he was going back to his teaching job at Berkeley for summer school, and how about a divorce?
After that Mother drank a little more, got mad at me more often, and took Gloria’s side in our fights more often. I’ve often wondered about all this Oedipus complex stuff you hear about between mother and son. Because it sure hasn’t worked with us. Mother doesn’t like me. She never has— at least not as far back as I can remember. And I’m not crazy about her. As a matter of fact, I don’t much like women of any age. Meg is okay because she’s still short and fat and wears braces and hasn’t started yet to try to manipulate me. She’s eleven. But she’s a female, so I am keeping an eye on her, because any day now she may launch on some junior version of the “how could you do this to me?” bit.
Another of Mother’s statements, usually after a long, smouldering look, is “You’re getting to be just like your father.”
“Thanks,” I always say, very politely. That also annoys her.
Some women have gardening for a hobby, or good works, or art. Mother’s hobby is marrying. So far, and counting the professor who went back to summer school, she has racked up a record of four. There was the first professor, Gloria’s father, which probably accounts for Gloria’s IQ. I don’t know what that divorce was about. Needless to say, I wasn’t around. Then there was my father, whom Mother sometimes describes to her friends as “my one real mistake.” Once Barry Rumbolt, a widower, who has known her practically all her life and is known generally as Barry Rumble Seat, said bluntly, “Why?”
“Because Eric was so . . . so . . . square and middle- class and true-blue-All-American-Boy-Scout. You know the type. They always turn out to be engineers—or pilots.” And she looked across the porch at me.
My repulsive sister Gloria had once gotten hold of a diary I used to keep of things I liked and discovered that airplanes were about the most frequent entry. There were a lot of jokes then around the house about “This is your pilot, Charles Norstadt. We are now entering a slight turbulence. ...” Noises of gagging and upchucking would follow. I only got rid of that joke by telling Gloria’s latest boyfriend when he called that she had unexpectedly gone back to New York and couldn’t go to the weekend dance at the club with him. So of course come that Saturday night, he didn’t show. . . . It was very hairy there for a while. But there were no more references to airplanes except the odd one from Mother when she wanted to let me know she found me trying.
“There’s nothing wrong with airplane pilots,” Barry said. “You like to fly. What if there were no pilots?” That’s Barry all over. Old Mr. Reasonable. But what’s attractive about being reasonable?
“I like having the garbage picked up, too,” Mother said. “But that doesn’t mean I want to marry a sanitation worker or have my son devote his life to it as a profession.”
I just sat there and swung on the porch glider, grinning, wishing I had brought down a model plane I had made and put on top of the old-fashioned wardrobe in my room where Big and Little Snoopies couldn’t reach without a certain amount of trouble.
“Besides,” Mother went on, refilling her glass and Barry’s, “this helpmeet in far places bit was not my thing. When Eric got dispatched to Patagonia or Tasmania or outer Slobbovia or wherever it was and wanted me to come along and keep his lunchpail filled, I told him the time had come.”
From this you will gather my father was an engineer, a profession that struck Mother as from the boondocks. She preferred academe or the communicating arts. After she and my father were divorced, she married Bob, an editor in one of the classier publishing houses in New York, and they spent happy winters having what Barry called “Norman and Irving parties.” That ended after a raging battle over a review in the New York Review of Books of a book that Bob had published. In the middle of the battle Bob discovered that Mother hadn’t read the book. That did it. He walked out, leaving Mother with Meg as a legacy. Meg has a high IQ too.
After that came another professor. Mother stopped having parties and started protesting. This prof must have been on a dozen committees, because his name kept turning up in those full-page Times ads opposing everything and showing up the Establishment. It’s the one period in her life when Mother got exercise, carrying pickets of one kind or another.
I saw her on television, but one time didn’t really count, because there was a counterdemonstration going on across the street, and when she was discovered on camera she had somehow wandered into the opposition. The professor was really annoyed at that.
But nothing annoyed the professor (alias The Hairball) is much as I did, which was fine with me because it was entirely mutual. He would bring his Prophet Ezekiel beard silo my room, plunk his big rump down on my bed, and try to buddy up. I don’t think he would ever have succeeded, Mit he scuttled any chance he might have had the second time out. I was sitting at my desk trying to do some homework and he came mooching over.
After irritating me with a lot of small talk, he picked up
small photograph on top of the desk. “Who’s the lifeguard type?”
I took it out of his hand and put it in a drawer. “That’s my father. And the only time he was a lifeguard was when he was working to get through college.”
I’ll say this for the prof, he looked sorry on what I could see of his face between the bangs and the beard. “Look, I didn’t mean anything by that. It’s just a manner of speaking. I’d like us to be friends.”
“Sure. But right now I have homework.”
He gave a kind of hearty laugh. “Well, maybe I can give you a hand.”
“I don’t need your help, thanks.”
“Your mother says. you’re not doing so well.”
It was true. But it burned me up for him to mention it. I need hardly tell you that Gloria and Meg. seemed unable to get anything but A’s. I didn’t tell him, of course, but I had already made up my mind that the moment I was seventeen I was going to join the Air Force. Once there I could
study the things I wanted—even go to college, and then become a pilot. In the meantime, I wasn’t killing myself.
“Then,” I said, sounding as sarcastic as I could without getting into trouble, “since Mother told you what a dumdum I am, I’d better get on with memorizing the twice times. It’s pretty difficult.”
He mumbled some kind of protest, but I deliberately turned back to my book, which I have found very effective. Being ignored is more than most people can take. Sooner or later they flip their lids and stamp out or just slink to the door. Either way you’ve won. The prof was no different, for all his degrees. I looked around a few minutes later and he wasn’t there.
He made several tries after that, beginning every other statement with “like” and throwing in “relate to” and “interpersonal relations” as though they were some kind of code words. He even tried getting me hooked on some of his causes—this time the favored words were “relevant” and “involved.” Not being the no-brain that he and Mother think I am, I’ve heard the words before. I even know what they mean and think (privately) they’re usually on target. But I wasn’t about to discuss anything like that with this hairball—particularly in his role of stepfather.
But he was gone now, anyway, which was altogether a good thing, though being without a husband always brought out Mother’s nervous symptoms. For one thing, except when old Barry Rumble Seat was around, it meant she had to go to parties alone. And she didn’t like that.
Well, anyway, to get back to The Man Without a Face and how I came to know him. . . .
It began, as I’ve told you, because of Gloria and her decision to stay at her day school in New York for the next two years. I couldn’t put up with that. I already felt I was drowning in women. Funny—when just Mother and Meg and I were home it wasn’t so bad. It was even— sometimes—fun. Meg has one reigning interest in life and that is animals, which is another reason that even though she’s a female she can’t be all bad. Because of Mother’s allergies we can’t have hairy pets around. So Meg takes out her interest in two aquariums, four turtles, a canary, a budgie, a parrot, and a shelf of books on wildlife. She watches all the animal shows on television and is a charter member of the Flipper Club. When she gets going she can really turn out the information.