Coffin County by Gary A. Braunbeck
Gary A. Braunbeck
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Rami Temporales

“When I face myself I’m surprised to see
That the man I knew don’t look nothing like me...”

--John Nitzinger, “Motherlode”

It started with the woman in the restaurant and her hysterectomy story.

I was alone in my favorite booth at the Sparta, enjoying the last of my cheeseburger, when I happened to glance up. 

 “...and like I said before, she never listens to me--hell, she never listens to anyone when they try to tell her something for her own good.  She’s been that way all her life and look what it’s got her.”

She was at a booth toward the back of the restaurant, while mine was up front on the same side; I sat facing the rear, she facing the front, so she was looking right at me and there was no place to hide.

“I kept telling her, ‘Sandy, your frame is too small to chance having another baby.  You almost didn’t squeeze out little Tyler the first time, there’s no way you can have another one.’  I think she knew I was right but she wasn’t about to have an abortion, not with her Ronnie being the way he is--you know, all manly and pro-life: ‘No wife of mine is going to kill our baby.  I’ll not have people gossiping about me like that.’”

Her tone suggested that the two of us had just resumed a previously-interrupted conversation.  For a moment I thought she might be talking to someone seated across from her in the booth, a short person, or even a child--though why anyone would want to speak to a child about abortion was beyond me.  I then thought she might be wearing one of those new cell phones, the type which you hang off your ear and have a small fiber-optic microphone, but, no: she was looking at and talking to me.

“I know she thinks I’m a nib-shit, but that girl has no idea how terrible he treats her.  Or maybe she does and figures she ain’t gonna find a better man so she puts up with it for the kids.”  She was on the verge of tears.  “I mean, Ronnie forced her to have that second baby, even though he knew there was a chance it was going to...y’know, mess up her insides.  She almost died.  They had to do an emergency Caesarian, and by then she was so tore up there wasn’t no choice but to do a hysterectomy.  She’s only twenty-three and now she’ll never be able to have more children--and Sandy loves children.  She spoils that Tyler rotten, and she’ll do the same for little Katherine.  But she...”  The woman leaned forward; secret time.  I found myself leaning toward her, as well.

“...she bleeds a lot sometimes,” she whispered.  “Not her period--she don’t have those no more.  It’s on account of her still being raw in there from everything.   And sex--forget that.  She don’t even want to look at Ronnie, let alone share her bed and body with him.  But that doesn’t stop him, no sir.  If he wants it, he takes it, and who cares if she’s doubled over with cramps and bleeding for two days after.  She ain’t a wife to him, she’s just a possession, so to him it ain’t rape.  Them kids don’t hardly exist for him at home--oh, if there’s an office party or picnic or something like that, he’s Robert Young on Father Knows Best, but the rest of the time...”  She shook her head.  “You know, I seen him just today.  Walking into the Natoma restaurant with a woman from his office.  Had his hand on her ass.  ‘Working late on the new contract proposals’ my ass!  And after all he’s done to her.”

“He...”  I couldn’t believe I was asking this.  “...forces her to...?”

“All the time.”

“My God.”  The whole of Sandy’s life suddenly played out in my mind and I felt soul-sick and ineffectual as I witnessed it; Sandy:  under- to uneducated (as so many young women in this city are), no dreams left, working nine hours a day in some bakery or laundry or grocery store, then coming home to a husband who didn’t much like her and children who--though she might love them and spoil them rotten now--would grow up following Daddy’s example to not much respect her, and before twenty-five she’d be wearing a scarf around her head to cover the prematurely gray hair, read only the saddest stories in the newspaper, and spend any free time she might have watching prime-time soap operas and getting twelve pounds heavier with each passing year.  I think I’d’ve known her on-sight, no introductions necessary.

“That poor girl,” I said.

“Sometimes,” the woman said, “I got half a nerve to just go over there with my truck and tell her to pack herself and the kids up and come stay with me.  Maybe I should.”

“That sounds like a splendid idea.”

Does it?”  Look at how alive her eyes became when she heard this; goodness me, somebody actually thinks I had a splendid idea.

She finished her coffee, took the last bite of her apple pie, then gathered up her purse and resolve and walked up to me, her hand extended.  “Thank you for listening to me.”

“You’re welcome.”

Still there were tears trying to sneak up on her.  “I just feel so bad for her, y’know?”

“But she isn’t alone.  She has you.”

Her grip tightened.  “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s said to me in a while--and you’re right.  She does have me.  And I got a truck and she’s got the day off.”

“Ronnie’s working late, I take it?”

“Bastard’s always working late.”  She smiled at me, then released my hand, leaned down, and kissed my cheek.  “Thanks, mister.  I really appreciate you lettin’ me go on about this.  I hope it wasn’t no bother, it’s just, well...you just got one of those faces, y’know?”

One of those faces.

How many times in my life have I heard that?

I don’t avoid contact with strangers.  It would do no good.  They always come up to me.  Always.  Take any street in this city at a busy hour, fill it with people rushing to or from work or shopping or a doctor’s appointment, add the fumes and noises of traffic, make it as hectic and confusing as you wish--I am inevitably the one people will stop and ask for directions, or for the time, or if I know a good restaurant.  “You got of those faces,” they’ll say.  I have had homeless people politely make their way through dozens of other potential benefactors to get to me and ask for change.  I always give what I can spare, and they always tell me they knew I’d help them out because--say it with me...

This is why I’m thought of as friendly person.  Ask anyone who thinks they know me:  “You want to know about Joel?  Oh, he’s a great guy, friendly as they come, the best listener in the world, sincerely.”

Truth is, human contact scares holy hell out of me.  I’m always worried that I’ll say the wrong thing or misinterpret a gesture or infer an attraction that’s not there.  So I listen, even though most of the time I want to slink off into the woodwork, especially when the stories are troubling.

But ask anyone what they know about me; you could groom your hair in the reflection from the glassy look.  Just once I would like to have been asked something about myself.  Just once, that’s all.

“I’ll bet you hate having your picture taken.”

I blinked, looking around.  Sandy’s friend was long gone and as far as I could see, I was the only customer on this side of the--

--scratch that.  Across the aisle, one booth down and facing the front, sat a gaunt old man who looked so much like the late actor Peter Cushing it was eerie; thinning silver hair formed into a widow’s peak on his forehead, aristocratic nose, sharp jaw-line, small but intense bluish-gray eyes under patrician brows; when he swallowed, his too-large Adam’s apple threatened to burst through his slender neck and bounce away.

“Yes,” he said--more to himself than me, “I don’t imagine you enjoy it at all.”

I gawked at him for a few more moments--he even sounded like Cushing--then said: “I beg your pardon?” 

“That was marvelous of you, listening to that woman.  You probably made her day.”

“It seemed discourteous to do otherwise.”

“‘Discourteous.’  Good word.  So tell me: do you hate being photographed?”

“I don’t know.  I never thought much about it.”  Which was a lie, albeit a harmless one.  I despise having my picture taken; forget the rudeness of it ( I got the camera so I’m going to get up in your face and take this snapshot whether you like it or not), which I object to on moral grounds--most people never ask, they just click away--it’s that every time I see a picture of myself, I don’t recognize me.  I always look like someone just stuck a gun in my back and told me to act natural.

I continued staring at the man.

“There’s a reason I look and sound this way, Joel--by the way, were you named after anyone in particular?”

“Joel McCrea.  Mom’s favorite movie was Ride the High Country and Dad’s was Sullivan’s Travels.”

He smiled his approval.  “Good films, and a fine actor after which to be named.  I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten--who was your favorite actor?”

“Peter Cush--oh, hang on!”

He winked.  “I told you there was a reason.  By the way, hello.  My name’s Listen, and it’s not that I don’t find shouting across the aisle like some sort of simpleton amusing, but wouldn’t it be better to continue this in a more civilized manner?  So if you would join me here, please, we can get to the heart of the matter.”

“The heart of what matter?”

“Your face and why I need you to give it to me.”

Everything inside was whispering Get the hell away from this loony.  Okay, he knew my first name, no real mystery there--I was a regular and all the staff called me by name, he probably heard the waitress talking to me, case closed.  How he knew Peter Cushing was my favorite actor was another matter; I have no real friends with whom I would have shared that.  And as to how he was an exact double of Cushing...

I prefer my weirdness in small, bite-sized doses, preferably in movies or books.  I was still rattled by Sandy’s story and in no mood for games.  Your face and why I need you to give it to me.  Uh-huh.  I suddenly didn’t care how he knew what he knew and why he looked as he did; it was time to go.

I grabbed the check and started to make a clean getaway when he said:  “Please tell me you’re not going to make me have to follow you.”

I turned.  “Is that a threat?”

“Not at all.  But I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to you and the health of your loved ones that you sit down and talk to me.”

My chest went cold with anger.  “What the fuck do you mean, the health of my loved ones?”

He sighed, then pulled a gold pocket watch from his vest and looked at the time.  “In about ninety seconds your cell phone is going to beep.  The number displayed will be that of a pay phone in the lobby of Cedar Hill Memorial Hospital.  It will be your sister, Amy.  Look up at the television over the front counter.”

I did.  It showed a viewing room inside Criss Brothers Funeral Home.  Several people were gathered around a small casket.  From the back, one of them looked like Dad--why would anyone elsewear that jacket?  He stood there until Mom--who I clearly recognized--came over, put her arm around him, and pulled him away.  As they stepped to the right of the casket I saw who was lying inside and it slammed closed every window in my soul.

“She’ll be calling,” said Listen, “to tell you that your eight-year-old nephew Tommy has just been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  What she doesn’t know yet is that it’s been found too late.  Tommy will be dead before his birthday in October.”

No one--I mean no one--else in the family but me knew about the follow-up EEG Tommy was having done today.  For the last couple of years, my nephew--who I love dearly--has been plagued by severe headaches.  At first it was thought he was suffering from allergies, but the medications prescribed made him sick and irritable and unhappy.  Another doctor’s visit revealed he needed adenoid surgery, so that was done and for a little while the headaches stopped.  But about two months ago they returned with a vengeance--nausea, crying, wild mood-swings, fear.  Tommy wants to draw comic books when he grows up.  He’s a small kid and gets picked on a lot at school because he’s not into sports and thinks girls are cool.  This morning his mother had taken him to the hospital for more tests because the first set came back inconclusive.  The thought of him dying broke me in half.   Though there’s a lot in life I enjoy, I don’t genuinely love much in this world but my sister and my nephew.

But for the moment I was staring at a videotape of him lying in his casket while Mom tried to look strong as Amy, shuddering, collapsed into a nearby chair while her lout of an ex-husband stood off to the side flirting with one of her friends from high school.

“The medical expenses will all but bankrupt her and she’ll plunge into a black depression that will end with her suicide the following February--and right now there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Turning away from the suffering on the screen, I balled my hand into a fist and felt a tear slip from my eye.  “I don’t know how you--”

--and my cell phone went off.

“You can always depend on your sister to be prompt,” said Listen, snapping closed his watch and slipping it back into his vest pocket.

I checked the display on the phone: beneath the number--which I did not recognize--were the words unknown caller.

“You have only to sit down and I can make it all go away,” said Listen.  “This offer expires in thirty seconds.  That isn’t my choice, those are the rules.”

Panic and desperation are curious things.  Enough of either impairs your judgment; a gut full of both turns you into a marionette.

I sat down.  My phone stopped beeping.  The display was now blank, and when I pressed the recall button, the number listed was that of The Ally, Cedar Hill’s only newspaper, where I am employed as manger of the paste-up department.

Listen smiled.  “It’s not showing the pay phone number because your sister never made the call.  The tests came back negative.  Right now she’s sitting in a Ladies’ Room stall crying from relief while your nephew is bothering the nurses about how much he wants to see the new Spider-Man movie.”

“What rules?”

“Beg pardon?”

“You said ‘those are the rules.’  What were you--”

“--you might want to look at the television again.”

This time it was some sort of convention.  A large room filled with throngs of fans.  The camera moved in on a table where a particularly long line of them stood with stacks of things to be autographed.  There were three people seated at the table and it was the young man in the middle who seemed the focus of attention.  As the camera came closer I saw my sister, her hair shorter and greyer, seated to the left of the young man--who I now recognized as an older Tommy.  I sat on the other side of him, thinner, my slouch a bit more pronounced, hair and beard (I would finally grow a beard?) filled with streaks of white.  A fan came to the table and held out a hardcover book.  Tommy, smiling, took it and began talking to the fan, introducing his mother and then myself and launching into some story in which I seemed to play a major role.  He then signed the book and had the fan step behind the table so someone could take a picture of the four of us, the fan beaming as he held his autographed copy of...of...

“I can’t make out what’s on the cover,” I said.

“Well, no.  That would fall under the category of ‘Too Much Information.’  Tommy’s been diagnosed with migraine headaches and will be put on medication that will keep them more or less under control for the rest of his life.”  He nodded toward the television.  “That scene will take place in sixteen years.  Tommy will be a very successful writer/illustrator of graphic novels, and he’ll have you to thank for the idea which leads to the creation of his most famous character.  So it wouldn’t be playing fair to let you see the title of the book, now, would it?”

I looked at Amy’s face and saw the peace there, the happiness.  “What about--”

“She’ll re-marry in about five years.  He’ll be divorced and a recovering alcoholic who’s been on the wagon for ten years.  He’ll never take another drink.  He’ll be a laborer, and not nearly as smart as she is, but that won’t matter.  He’ll love her and Tommy with all his heart and be, after your nephew, the best and most decent thing to ever happen in her life.  She’ll be happy, and she’ll be loved.  That’s all you need to know.”

The television blinked and the image was replaced by the sitcom re-run that usually ran at this hour.

“H-how did you...do this?”

Listen arched his brows.  “Do you really need to know the how and why of it?  Isn’t it enough that I did it and will not reverse things regardless of your decision?”

I nodded.  “My face and why you need--”

He waved it away.  “Yes, yes, yes, I already know why I’m here, thank you.”

“Then how about you explain it to me?”

He folded his hands.  “Fine.  But first I must have a refill on my coffee and a slice of their coconut cream pie.  Would you like some, as well?  My treat.”

“Sure.”  I remembered the parking meter outside.  The Ally used to be right across the street from the Sparta, but had moved a year ago to a larger building on the other side of the square, so these days I had to drive over here for dinner after work.  The meter would be expiring in a few minutes.  I hoped that Listen wouldn’t think--

“Not at all, dear boy,” he said.  “Go feed your quarters into the bloody thing, I understand completely.”

“Be right back.”

Outside, I was digging into my pocket for change and trying not to shriek with joy.  I know how melodramatic that sounds, but it’s how I felt.  Elated.  I knew somehow that all of it was true, that this weird little man had just saved the lives of my sister and nephew.

Like most people, I don’t believe in miracles but often depend on them in the same wishful-thinking way that gets most of us through our days: Maybe I’ll win the lottery, maybe I’ll get that raise, maybe she’ll say she will go out with me.  But here, now, in this most unlikely of places, I had been witness to something genuinely miraculous and wanted to sing and dance until the Twinkie Mobile came to haul me off.

“I didn’t mean to do it!”

He was in his early thirties, dressed in clean khaki pants and work boots, with a denim shirt and baseball cap.  His face sported a vague five-‘o’-clock shadow that told you he had, indeed, shaved that morning.  His blond hair was neatly combed and there was nothing about him to suggest that he was either homeless or insane.

Except his eyes.  To look in them as he spoke you would have thought he’d swallowed a leathery chunk of pain.

There were perhaps half-a-dozen other people out there, but I knew at once he would head toward me.

“I swear to God I didn’t want to do it, I swear to God!”  His gaze locked on me.  I found my change, pulled it with a shaking hand from my pocket, and immediately dropped most of it on the sidewalk.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” he said, stopping right in front of me and jamming his hands deep into his pockets.  “They made me do it!  They always make me do it!  I don’t want to.  She’s so little.  And she loves all of us.  She looks at me with those sweet eyes so full of trust and then I have to...to--I swear to God I don’t want to do it, they make me, you understand?  They make me do it!

Every inch of his body trembled with helpless rage.  I stepped behind the meter in case he exploded and got his crazy all over the street. 

Tears formed in his eyes.  “I don’t want to do it anymore.”  His voice broke on the last three words.

All I could think to say was: “How bad is she hurt now?”

“Not too bad this time.  She was doing pretty well when I left.  They won’t do anything to her, they never do.  They--”

“--make you do it for them.”

“Yes.”

I wanted to run away but I couldn’t.  Listen might take offense and that was the last thing I wanted.

“Can you take her places?” I asked.

He stopped trembling and looked in my eyes.  “Uh-huh.  I’m the only one who ever does.”

I tilted my head in the direction of City Hall at the end of the street.  “Why don’t you take her in there and tell the person at the front desk what they make you do?  They can put her someplace safe and you’ll never have to hurt her again.”

He dragged an arm across his teary eyes, then inhaled thickly.  “Really?

“I’m almost certain, yes.”

He looked toward City Hall and took something from his pocket; a small, cheap,  plastic toy modeled after a Saturday morning cartoon character.  “I got this for her to say I’m sorry.  I always get her something after...after, and she always...thanks me.  Do you think she’ll like it?”

“I’m sure she’ll love it.”

“They sell these over at the drug store.  I could--hey, I could maybe tell them I’m taking her out to buy another one, then we could go over there.”

“That sounds good.  Make sure you use the dark brown metal door on the 5th Street side.”  That would take them down a short set of stairs into the police station.

“I’ll remember.  You bet I will.”  And he walked away, gripping the toy as if it were a holy talisman.  “Swear to God I never meant to hurt her.  They made me.  They always make me.  Oh, God...”

I watched until he disappeared around the corner.  I bent down to collect my spilled change and my car’s horn sounded from behind.  After I’d managed to squeeze back into my skin, I turned, still shaking, to see Listen sitting in the passenger seat.  He grinned at me and waved.

“I’d forgotten they were out of the coconut cream pie,” he said, leaning out the open window.  “I took care of the bill.  Let’s go for a ride.”

I gathered up what change I could find and climbed in but didn’t start the car.

“Another story, I take it?”

I exhaled.  “Jesus, that guy was...was--”

“--at the end of his rope, just so you know.  I’d share the specifics of his home situation, but it would only make you sad and sick.”

“Do you know what’s going to happen?”

“Yes.  I won’t say he and the little girl will both be fine, because the possibility of that outcome died a long while ago.  But he’ll get her out of there tonight and take her through the brown metal door and, eventually, things will be better for both of them.  Not great--never great--but better.  Now believe it or not, I am on something of a schedule, so if you would please start the car and drive out to Moundbuilders Park...”

“Why there?”

He huffed and made a strangling gesture with his hands.  “Arrrgh!--and when was the last time you heard anyone actually say that?  Look, do I strike you as being impulsive?  No?  Do you think I go about will-nilly?  Of course not.  Has any of this seemed unplanned?”

I started the car and drove away.

“Have you ever seen any paintings or drawings of Jesus?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“Can you remember anything specific about them?”

I shrugged.  “Beard.  Hair.  Flowing robes.  Eyes.”

“But the faces have always been different somehow, haven’t they?  The hair longer or shorter, the beard fuller, the cheekbones higher or lower,  fuller or more drawn, even the hue of the skin has been different--yet somehow you always recognize the face.”

“Okay...?”

“Ever wonder how many different versions of that face exist in statues or paintings or sketches?”

“Thousands, I would think.”

“Seventy-two, actually.  Followers of the Prophet Abdu’l-Bahá believe that everything in nature has ‘two and seventy names.’  That’s almost right.  The thing that has always annoyed me about the various religions is that, with rare exceptions, their beliefs are too compartmentalized.  This is what we believe in, period.  I’ll tell you a secret:  they’re all wrong--individually.  The problem is none of them can see Belief holistically.  If they were all to ‘gather at the river,’ so to speak, and compare notes, you’d be surprised how quickly people would stop setting off bombs and flying airplanes into skyscrapers.  But I digress.

“Everything in nature does have seventy-two names.  But certain of these things also have seventy-two forms.  Like the face of Jesus, for example.”

“You’re telling me that Christ has been portrayed as having seventy-two faces?”

“No, whiz-kid, I’m telling you that Christ had seventy-two faces.  Every picture you see is nothing more than a variation on one of them.  Faces change over the course of a lifetime, dear boy.  All in all, each of us wears seventy-one.”

“I thought you just said--”

“--I know what I said, I recognized my voice.  There is one face we possess that is never worn--at least, not in the sense that the world can see it.  The best way I can explain it is to say that it’s the face you had before your grandparents were born.  That is the face I need from you.   It exists here--” He cupped one of his hands and covered his face from forehead to upper lip. “--in the Rami Temporales.”

“In the muscles around the eyes?”

“No, those are part of the Rami Zygomatici, an area controlled by the Temporales, which is a much larger and influential group in the temporo-facial division of--oh, for goodness’ sake!  Are you in the mood for an anatomy lesson?  Are you worried that I’m going to pull out a scalpel and cut away?  I’m not a graduate of the Ed Gein School of Cosmetology, so put that notion out of your head this instant.”

I stopped at a red light on 21st Street.  “Then I guess I don’t understand what you mean at all.”

“Perhaps we need to expedite things a bit.  Turn left.”

The light changed and I made the turn.  Even though the entrance to the park should have been a good six miles farther, here we were.  I pulled into the parking area and we climbed out.

“I have some luggage in your trunk,” said Listen.  “If you wouldn’t mind...?”

It was a large, bulky square thing that reminded me of a salesman’s sample case.  I lifted it out of the trunk and damn near snapped my spine.  “What’s in here, the population of a small Third-World nation?”

Is a tad on the heavy side, isn’t it?  Sorry.”  Listen took the case from me and dangled it from one hand as if it weighed no more than a tennis racket.  “Do you have a favorite spot here?”

“You already know the answer.”

“Of course you’re right.  I just wanted to see if you’d lie to me again like you did about having your picture taken.”

“How did you know that?”

“I do my homework, dear boy.  You’ll be turning forty-two in July, and since the day of your birth you’ve been photographed exactly one-hundred-and-nine times, counting your employee identifications and driver’s licences.  By the time they’re your age, the average person has been photographed close to a thousand times, be it individually or as part of a group.  But not you.  One-hundred-and-nine times, that’s it.”

“It’s over there.”

“What is?”

“My favorite spot.”

“Ah, yes, the picnic area near the footbridge.  Where Penny Duffy kissed you when both of you were in the eighth grade.”

I took a seat at the picnic table while Listen walked up to the footbridge and took in the entire park.

“Know anything about ‘places of power’?” he said.

“Like Stonehenge?”

“Exactly.  Stonehenge is a perfect example.  The Irazu volcano in Costa Rica, the Ruins of Copan in Honduras, Cerne Abas Giant, and Bodh Gaya where Buddha achieved enlightenment are a few others.  Places where the forces of the Universe are intensely focused and can be harnessed by the faithful.”

“Don’t go all New-Age on me, okay?”

“Don’t make me ill.  There are well over a thousand such spots, but believe it or not, only seventy-two are genuinely significant.  Only seventy-two are filled with such power that you can feel the Earth thrum like some excited child who’s filled to bursting with a secret their heart can no longer contain.  This park--” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm.  “--is one of those seventy-two places.  The Indian Burial mounds here are so potent they’re scary.”

“Is that why we’re here?”

“Yes.  What needs to be done, needs to be done in a place of power.  Such are the ways of ritual.”  He joined me at the table.  “I have to tell you certain things to aid you in making your decision.  Whatever happens, know that Amy’s and Tommy’s future health and happiness is safe.”

He reached down to flip the first of four latches on the case.  “The first time a stranger approached you with a story, you were seven years old.  It was an elderly woman who was in tears because she’d lost a cameo her late husband had gotten for her overseas during World War One.  You sat there on your bike and listened to her and then you said--do you remember this?”

I nodded.  “She said she always wore it so she could feel him near.  She talked about how he’d loved her home-made strawberry preserves, how she still made a batch every year to give as Christmas presents.  This was three weeks before Christmas.  I asked her if she’d already made her preserves and she said yes.  I knew right away that the cameo’s clasp had come loose from the necklace.  It had fallen into one of the preserve jars.  I didn’t tell her that, though.”

“No, but you did ask the right questions so she could figure it out.  Do you know what would have happened if that woman hadn’t approached you?  She would have taken her own life New Year’s Eve.  This was a dangerously depressed gal, Joel, one who’d been the focus of her childrens’ worry since the death of her husband.  You saved her life that day.”

No...”

“Oh, yes.  And since that day, because you have ‘one of those faces,’ people keep coming up to you, don’t they?  Asking for directions, spare change, if you know a good restaurant...or to tell you things.  Rami Temporales, the face beneath the flesh.  That is what draws them to you.  They recognize it in you just as you can recognize the face of Jesus or Shakespeare, because regardless of how many variations there might be, the face beneath the flesh--the First Face, the one you had before your grandparents were born--remains unchanged.”  He opened the case and laid it flat.  From one end to the other it was at least four feet wide and three across, perhaps two feet deep.

Something wasn’t right.  I’d seen this thing closed, had tried to lift it, and though it weighed a ton there was nothing to suggest it would be this wide, long, or deep when opened. 

Then he opened it again.  Two sections into four, each covered by a square of black material.

“Since your encounter with Cameo Lady, you’ve lost track of how many people have approached you.  But I haven’t.  Do you know what you are, Joel?  You’re a safety valve.  People see your face and know you’ll be sympathetic, so they have no qualms about unloading their woes on you.  Do you think it helps them?”

“I have no idea.”

“Hm.”  He removed a small notebook from his vest.  Flipping it open to the first page, he began reading aloud.  “Over the course of the thirty-four years since Cameo Lady, your listening to others has prevented forty-three rapes, one-hundred-and-twelve suicides, sixty-seven episodes of child abuse, thirty-three divorces, ninety-eight murders, and so many cases of spousel abuse I ran out of room to record them all.”  He tossed the notebook to me.  “Look it over later if you’d like.  The point is that all the time you’ve secretly felt was wasted while you listened has actually made a difference.  If I asked how many people were affected by you today, you’d say...?”

“Two.  Sandy’s friend and the guy outside the Sparta.”

He shook his head.  “Five, Joel.”  He held up his hand, fingers spread apart.  “Five.  And one of them--not the fellow outside the restaurant, by the way--would have already snapped and be torturing a child nearly to death right now if it weren’t for the ninety seconds they spent talking to you.”  He went back to the case.  Four sections became eight.  Eight became twelve.  Twelve became sixteen, each section attached by hinges to those above, below, and on either side.  Already something that should have only taken up maybe six square feet covered at least fifty.  Had he been unfolding some massive quilt I wouldn’t have felt like the world was disintegrating around me.  But this thing was making confetti out of the basic laws of physics.  I was standing in the middle of a live-action Escher painting.

Sixteen sections became twenty-four.  Twenty-four became thirty-two.  Every compartment covered in black, creating a square, bottomless dark pit.

“What are you?” I asked.

Thirty-two sections quickly became forty-eight.  “What, is it?  Not who.  You catch on fast.   Yes, I was being surly.  Apologies.”

“Are you going to answer the question or should I just wait for a postcard?”

Forty-eight sections were now sixty-four.  “Consider me a reconstructive surgeon.  My area of expertise is, of course, the face.  One in particular.”  With a final flurry of hands and flipping, the sixty-four sections became seventy-two. 

“There,” he said, standing back and admiring the massive obsidian square which lay where the ground and grass used to be.  “Whew!  Sometimes this really wears me out.”

“What the hell is it?”

“Funny you should mention Hell.  I had to go there in order to get a few of these--and don’t think that wasn’t a bushel of dreadful fun.”  He pulled aside one of the black compartment covers and the rest, like slats in Venetian blinds, folded back to reveal what lay underneath.  “I don’t have all of them yet.  Counting yours, I still have eleven to go.”

In each filled compartment, nestled in a thick bed of dark felt, was a glass mask.  Several were full-face, while others were half or three-quarters, but a majority were of isolated sections:  the forehead and nose; cheeks connected by the nose bridge; the lips and chin; temples and eyes; the cheeks alone; and one mask, looking like one of those optical illusion silhouettes you see in Psychology textbooks, was of the forehead, nose, lips, and chin only.  No cheeks, no temples, no eyes.

“I thought this one would interest you,” said Listen.  “Not that there’s anything especially significant about it for you, but something about its shape I knew you’d find fascinating.”  He pulled on a pair of the whitest gloves I’ve ever seen and removed the mask.  On closer inspection, as the sunlight danced glissandos over its shape, I saw it wasn’t made out of glass but some thin, transparent, seemingly organic material that held the shape and acted as a prism on the light.

“Okay.  Time you knew the rest.  Have a seat.

“Jesus, Shakespeare, Buddha--all of their faces recognizable even though none were ever photographed.  Yes, there’s an element of the collective unconscious and the archetype involved, but it’s a little more complicated than that.  People recognize those faces because somewhere in the back of their minds that’s what they want them to look like.  Jesus should look benevolent and spiritual, Shakespeare intelligent and creative, Buddha wise and all-knowing.  Everyone has these characteristics in mind when picturing them, and so they are always present in portraits and sculptures and sketches.  Consensual reality, to over-simplify it: ‘I believe this is what it looks like, so that is how it appears.’

“The same holds true for the face of God, Joel.  But just as the portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Da Vinci, Galileo and the rest change from likeness to likeness, just as any human being’s face changes over the course of a lifetime or a even a day--your happy face, your leave-me-alone face, your confused face, et cetera--the face of God changes.  And it’s not supposed to.  But He doesn’t have the advantage of an archetype buried in peoples’ minds.  That’s where I come in.”  He squinted at the mask, blew on it, then used his fingertips to brush away some dust or pollen.  “I keep forgetting what dirt magnets these things can be.  Where was I?

“Ah, yes: the face of God.  Have you ever noticed how the horrors of this world seem to never cease coming at you?  Hideous mass murders, bombings, wars breaking out in distant countries, rapes, missing children, mutilated children, men walking into fast-food restaurants and opening fire with automatic weapons...the inventory is inexhaustible.  There’s a reason.  Simply put, it’s because no one has even the slightest idea what God’s face looks like.  Everyone guesses, and though some of those guesses might have a particular element nailed down, none of them comes close to the real thing, because there isn’t one. That’s why there’s this gaping hole where that face should exist.  So, a while ago, God--Who wouldn’t know Vanity if it bit Him in the soft parts--consented to allow me to build a face for Him.  Being an overly-curious sort, I naturally had to inquire why He’d never made one for Himself.  It turns out that He did, but he gave it away.  It was the last thing He did on the Sixth Day.  He divided His face into seventy-two sections and scattered them into the Universe.”

It took a moment for the full impact of this to hit me.  “So you’re saying that...that I--?”

“Possess a missing section of God’s face, yes.”

I looked at the masks displayed before me.  “How did you manage to find any of these?”

“It would bore you to death.”

“Give me the Reader’s Digest version.”

“Prime numbers.  Seventy-one--the number of faces you wear in a lifetime--is a prime number, so I took a shot in the dark and began with that.  All the digits of your birthday are prime numbers which add up to the same: 7-13-59.  Every genuinely significant event that’s occurred in your life has happened when your age was a prime, today included--remember, you’re still forty-one.  It took me several thousand years to figure this out, but once the equation revealed itself, the rest fell into place.  I took the true age of the Universe, divided it by seventy-one, divided that sum by seventy-one, and kept repeating the pattern until I was left with a sum of one.  I then divided each of the seventy-one individual sums by seventy-one and...you’re way ahead of me, aren’t you?

“There was much more to it--factoring in alterations made to the Earthly calendar for solstices and, of course, that pain-in-the-ass Gregorian business--but in the end I pinpointed seventy-one specific years scattered through all of history, and in each of those years, using the prime number formulae, I pinpointed one person whose life not only fit exactly the numerical pattern that had been discovered, but who had been blessed--or cursed, depending of course on your point of view--with ‘one of those faces.’   That’s the short version and believe me, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.”

“What happens if I say no?”

“I thank you for your time and go away disappointed.  I provided for the possibility that at least nine of you would refuse.  I can reconstruct most of His face with what I already have, and guess the rest with a large degree of accuracy.  But I’m stubborn, Joel.  I am so close to having all of the sections.  It’s been my life’s work and I will not be stopped.  I won’t resort to Inquisition or Gestapo or Khmer Rogue tactics in order to achieve my goal--even though I could.”   He held up the mask.  “So--”

“--you need my decision.”

“Not until you know what will happen if you say ‘yes.’”

“I assume that people will stop singling me out like they’ve done my entire life.”

His eyes narrowed into slits.  “Don’t let’s be flippant, dear boy.  Think about everything you’ve learned today.  Think.

The notebook.

I pulled it from my pocket and looked at the pages.  “Oh, no...”

“Oh, yes.  People will no longer single you out.  Your face--which you’ve always thought was so very nondescript--will become just that.  Someone meeting you for the first time won’t be able to remember what you look like ten minutes after you’ve parted ways.  You’ll be just another faceless face in a sea of faceless faces.  Now, being the social butterfly that you are, that’s probably not going to bother you too much.  However--”

I held up the notebook.  “The stories.”

“Exactly.  Since you will have given me your First Face, those same people who won’t be singling you out also won’t be telling you their stories.  And because they won’t be doing that, there are going.  To be.  Consequences.  Do you understand?”

A tight, ugly knot was forming between my chest and throat.

“I understand,” I whispered.  “Is that all?”

“No.  There’s one last thing, and it might be the deal-breaker.”

He told me.

I listened carefully.

Thought about everything I’d learned.

And said yes.

“Lean back.”  He placed the first mask on my face.  It weighed no more than ether.  Then, one by one, he removed each successive mask and layered it on top of the one before until I wore all of them.

Have you ever used one of those sinus-headache masks?  The ones that have that icy blue glop inside?  That’s what it felt like.  An overpowering wave of cold spread across my face, seeped into my skull, through my brain, and formed a wall of frost in the back of my head.  I shuddered and reached up.

Listen grabbed my arm.  “Don’t touch it.  You’ll lose your hand.”

Soon it became a pleasant liquid numbness.  I sighed and maybe even smiled.

“Feels better now, does it?”

“...yes...”

“Then it’s done.  Keep your eyes closed, dear boy.  When you open them again I’ll be gone.  It’s been genuine pleasure meeting you, Joel.  You’re a decent man who still has a lot to offer the world.  I fervently hope you’ll believe that some day.  Now take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds.”

I heard something click a moment later.  When I exhaled and opened my eyes, Listen was gone.  I touched my face.  It felt no different.

Back in my car I adjusted the rear-view mirror and caught a glimpse of myself.

Then wept.

#

I find it difficult to watch the local news or read The Ally these days.  Every time I come across a story about a murder, a sexual assault, a beating, suicide, or any one of a thousand commonplace horrors we’ve grown so accustomed to, I wonder if the person who committed the act might have done otherwise if only they could have found some stranger to listen to their story.

It’s not that stories like these never appeared in the paper before, it’s just I don’t recall there having been so many of them.

I don’t sleep as well as I used to.

#

I received a postcard from Listen:  Having a here time--wish you were wonderful!  (A joke, dear boy.)  Nine to go.  I think this turned out rather well.  You were still wearing it, by the way.

On the other side was a photograph he’d taken of me in the park that day.  I am leaning against the picnic table with my eyes closed.  My face seems to glow in the sunlight which whispers a thousand soft colors of thanks.  It is a peaceful face.  A beautiful face.  A compelling, kind, compassionate face.

It belongs to a stranger.

#

The question that keeps nagging me is: Why?

Why, in order to know the face of God, must the same horrors caused by our having  not known it be perpetuated? 

You could argue that these horrors on the local news and in The Ally border on the insignificant when compared to the holistic catalogue of human misery.  You would be right, I suppose.  Unless you suspect you’re the cause.  And, no, filing it under “Sins of Omission” and going out for sushi doesn’t help much.

I miss being asked to pose for pictures, be them of myself alone or in a group.  I miss not being asked, just having someone click away.  But mostly, I miss having complete strangers come up to me with their stories.  I didn’t think I would, but since that day with Listen I’ve come to realize just how much that meant to me.

Like I said, I don’t sleep so well anymore.

#

The people I know and work with treat me differently.  So do the members of my family.  Nothing major, mind you, but there’s a certain caution in their eyes whenever they’re around me.

A few nights ago, after Amy, Tommy, and I had gone to a movie (I see the two of them nearly every day now), we went for a pizza.  While waiting for it to be delivered to the table, Tommy begged some quarters to play a video game.  He smiled when I handed him the money, then exchanged a “You-Gonna-Ask-Him-Or-Not?” look with his mother before sprinting over to the machines.

I stared at my sister.  “What was that about?”

She reached across the table and took hold of my hand.  “You know that Tommy and I really enjoy spending time with you, right?”

“Okay...?”

“You’ve been really wonderful ever since the hospital--”

“--Christ, I was just as relieved as you that it was only migraines.”

“Oh, the medicine works wonders, Joel, it really does.  It makes the pain go away and Tommy says sometimes it makes him feel all ‘shiny.’  Isn’t that the coolest way to describe it?”

“Yes, but that still doesn’t tell me what that look was about.”

“Tommy’s been worried about you, and so have I.  Hell, most everyone in the family has.”

Because...?”

“You don’t look like yourself.  I mean, you look like yourself, but there’s something...I don’t know...something missing, I guess.  You look so sad these days.”

I squeezed her hand and smiled, though I doubt it registered with her.

“I’m doing okay.”  Which wasn’t exactly a lie, but wasn’t exactly the truth, either; it was just safe.  I keep hoping that “safe” will help me sleep.

“You sure?”

“As sure as anyone can be, I guess.”

“Then why do you look so sad all the time?”

Would you understand? I thought.  If I were to tell you the story, would you even believe me, or would hearing it only add to the burdens you already carry?  I wish there were some way you could answer me without my having to say anything, but that’s a miracle I can only depend on, not believe in, so I will seek safety from my sins of omission in a kind-of silence.

“I don’t know,” I said, then shrugged.  “Maybe I’ve just got one of those faces.”