Friday, September 12, 2014
The Man with the Melted Face
My father had a room in our house that was his, and his alone. He built radio-controlled model airplanes there, and so nothing would get broken and he'd be free from kids who might bump his workbench or bump his elbow while he stretched silkspan fabric and carved balsa wood, no one was to venture into this room unless he was there to invite them in. Most will understand why this rule became, by the time I was in the 7th grade, more an invitation than a warning. In particular, I remember one of the days I trespassed.
It was in the afternoon, and my mother and father were grocery shopping at Arnie's Royal Blue. Being the oldest, I was assigned the task of babysitting. My two brothers and sister were playing outside, and I should have been, too, out watching over them, but...well, I think it's clear what I was up to. The radio controlled airplanes with their propellers and piston-driven engines were soon boring, I'd looked them over so many times before. Even the half-finished biplane the Red Baron himself would have paused over to study didn't interest me. What interested me was a stack of magazines. Most were about model building and airplanes, but deep in the stack I found a men's magazine and the girl on the cover held a power over me that airplanes couldn't compete with. I began to flip through the slick pages, only guessing what the company of such girls would be like. Then, turning a page, I came not to pictures of more pretty girls, but to a picture of a dead man. At first sight of him I took in a sharp breath of air and held it. His hands were tied behind his knees so his legs were tucked up against his chest, and his head rested on a block of wood so his face was turned toward the camera. His face looked like it was melting, like it was made of wax and been held up to a fire. One of his eyes was open and looked like a gray marble, the other was closed as if he was giving me a sly wink that said without words, "I've caught you."
I quickly put my hand over the picture so I wouldn't have to look at it, and recovered, began to breathe again. A child's life is set with traps that will destroy every kind of innocence in them. I should have put the magazine back where I'd found it, and when I didn't, I placed myself in the kind of trap of which nightmares are made. I began to read the article that accompanied the picture. I learned that other men had tied him up, dipped him in lye and then threw him off a bridge into a river. I learned that the coroner's report said that there was water in his lungs, so he'd drowned and had suffered long the burning of the lye. I kept reading, wanting to discover what monumental crime this man had committed to merit such a death, but came to the end of the article and never detected any such explanation. I reread the article and still detected nothing that would indicate justice had been done, for those were the days of the Lone Ranger and Superman, and I believed, just as other boys and girls did, that truth and justice was the "American way." It wasn't until the third reading of the article that I made sense of the facts, that he was a black man who'd bought a farm for he and his family in a white-only county in Georgia. Standing there I felt the world beneath my feet, felt it spinning in its orbit just like it always had, only now I knew there was something else sprinning along with me, spinning along with all of us, something I'd never suspected could exist in such enormity...an evil that could possess men to dip another man in lye and throw him off a bridge all because they didn't want him to be their neighbor. Even though my stomach was now rolling and flipping, I managed to put the magazine back among the others as I'd found it. It seemed meals from a week ago were trying to find their way back up my throat and into my mouth. I ran for the bathroom.
I was a trespasser, had looked at a magazine I shouldn't have looked at, so I couldn't go to my father and mother for comfort without turning myself in, couldn't find refuge in their hugs as I told them about what men had done to melt another man's face. For the first time in my life I felt the despair only those who have no one to turn to can feel. During the next days I might as well been on the moon. I lived among my mother and father, sister and brothers, but had little real contact with any of them. I sealed myself away. I nodded my head when spoken to and answered questions with a "yes" or "no." Every meal my mother put before me tasted like ashes. My only real companion during these days was the man with the melted face. When I closed my eyes he was there in the dark. He lurked at the edge of my every thought. He interrupted every daydream. So bad did it become that my last period of school was spent dreading going home, because going home meant that night was on its way, and there would be the ordeal of getting through it.
For those who lay awake at night, time changes. It's as if time is no longer made of hours and minutes. Time becomes unmeasurable, becomes an endless now that defies all clocks. I'm not clear as to how many nights I lay sleepless in the dark, but to get through those nights I sung hymns I'd learned in church and Bible school, and prayed to an all-powerful God who now seemed not so all-powerful at all. During those nights my imagination made any shadowy object in my room shape itself into the man with the melted face. I could see the stare of his gray marble eye. I could see his sly wink. But there was more. On Friday night I suddenly remembered a fact from the article that made me stiff with fear. The nameless and faceless men who'd dipped a man in lye and threw him off a bridge had never been caught. The killers were free and alive, and I convinced myself they were very near. I was sure I could see them slip like phantoms through the darkness in my backyard, sure it was them I heard scratching at my bedroom window. The terror became unbearable. Terror squeezed at my heart, squeezed at my bladder, and while I lay that night in the cold wet, I debated with myself whether I even wanted to live in the kind of world I now knew my world to be. The debate raged in my head. Live in the world or not? The debate ended when the morning sun threw its light up over the rim of the earth and the scratching at my window stopped.
Saturday was the day of crisis.
Wet sheets told my family that something was wrong, and though I held my own during interrogation, I tried to stay clear of everyone for fear further questions might bring about confession. I was in the hallway when it happened. Shrieking and howling, through the back door they came, my brothers and sister. At that same instant the man with the melted face had presented himself and did something he'd never done before. He opened his mouth. Their shrieks became his shrieks. My knees buckled and there came a curtain of darkness.
Sounds faded in and out. I blinked, was awake again, and looked up into faces with worry-rounded eyes. My father was on the floor, holding me in his arms. My mother was bent over me holding her hand to the side of my face. My sister and brothers peered down at me, shuffling in a nervous way from one foot to the other. A thermometer told that my temperature was normal. The beam of a flashlight told that there was no concussion. Then I confessed to the trespassing I'd done. I tried to tell the entire story, but when I drew a long breath to begin to do just that, everything I'd gone through in the last days crowded into that single moment and left me unable to speak. I couldn't tell them about the man with the melted face, about my nights of terror, about what I now knew about the world, that it was a more dangerous place than I'd ever supposed. My father gave me a short lecture. After he was done I promised to never trespass again and let it be known how very tired I was.
My father carried me out to our porch and laid me on a chaise lounge, the padding deep and comfortable. Everyone settled around me. My father began to sing a song to my little sister who sat on his lap smiling up at him. My mother ended a small squabble between my brothers over a toy corvette. How we escape the traps life sets for us determines who and what we become. I vowed never to shoot another bird with my BB gun, never to steal another watermelon from Mr. Westgate's garden, never again to make fun of Billy Barton for having a harelip. Evil might spin along with me as the earth kept its orbit, but I would have none of it. I yawned, sighed, my eyelids grew heavy. Listening to the soft conversations around me was like listening to the sea. My mother looked over at me and smiled the smile only she could give, and her smile was the last thing I saw before falling asleep.
There is no Santa Claus. There is no Easter Bunny. This is the way children should be awakened to the realities of life. It's gentle and it's sweet. There was nothing gentle or sweet in the way I was awakened. I unknowingly placed myself in a trap. I simply turned the page of a magazine, and saw the man with the melted face.