Coming back around the side of the store to the parking lot, I saw some teenagers hanging out in the bed of a white Toyota pickup. They must have pulled up while I was inside. They were smoking cigarettes in the deliberate self-conscious way of smoking teenagers: two of them, long-hairs. They were also openly watching me as I carried my bag toward the car. People like me prefer teenagers to other people. They are not afraid to stare.
The taller of the two, sandy blond hair and a wispy mustache on his upper lip, popped himself out and over the side of the truck like an athlete landing a long jump, and stopped himself when I’d thought he was going to come directly at me. “Dude!” he said, lifting his head. It was early. I felt good. Usually I ignore the few people who call out to me when I’m in public, but I looked over toward him and lifted my head right back.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Dude, your face,” he said.
I read a book called Stardance when I was thirteen years old. It left a big impression on me, though it’s hard to say exactly how, since I don’t remember much about the plot. It had something to do with zero gravity and people dancing in space, maybe in order to communicate something to an alien race. It is probable that when I remember Stardance, I am inventing several details as I go along.
Still, it was Stardance, or my memories of it, the ones I can either access or manufacture, that exploded momentarily in my mind just then as my eyes looked out from under the bulging reconstructed folds of skin that seem to hold them in place. I thought of dancers up in space, trying to stop aliens from enslaving or destroying the earth. I was turning the key in the lock on the car door but it felt like a kind of dancing to me.
“Dude, come here,” said the sandy blond with the mustache. “Not trying to be a dick, just … can I see?” He blew a little smoke and turned his head off to the side as he did it; I saw this as a gesture of deference, of trying to make me see that he wasn’t blowing smoke in my direction. It may have been, though I wonder, that he thought smoke might hurt my skin, which has a fresh-scraped look to it at all times.
Nobody ever asks me if they can look at my face. Except doctors and nurses, I mean. People do look at it, quite often, but usually only if they can convince themselves that I won’t notice they’re looking. They try not to let their eyes stop wandering when they look over in my direction; they pose as if they were surveying some broader scene. I understand, a little, the social dictate to not stare at misshapen people: you want to spare their feelings. You don’t want them to feel ugly. At the same time, though, even before I became what I am, I used to wonder: Isn’t it OK to stare if something seems to stand out? Why not stare? My own perspective is probably tainted by having spent long hours before mirrors after the accident. It would be pretty hard to make me feel “ugly.” Words like pretty and ugly exist in a different vocabulary from the one you might invent to describe a face that had to be put back together by a team of surgeons. My face is strange and terrible. It merits a little staring.
If I were to scream right now, these two would jump straight out of their skins. Just open up my mouth as wide as it will go and start shrieking. Watch them run or freeze in place or just start screaming right back. These urges are still present sometimes. They rise and pop like bubbles on the surface of a bog, and then they’re gone. They don’t trouble me. They are voices from a distant past. “Sure,” I said. I set my bag of candy in the car and I walked across the parking lot toward their truck.
We talked for a long time. The guy who’d called me over was named Kevin and his friend was named Steve, and Kevin said the Koreans at the liquor store were known to not card anybody who had a mustache. He slapped a brown bag in his flatbed as he said this and the full cans of beer gave off a muted thunk. I told him that when I was a little younger than he was now, we didn’t even bother to try buying, because the owners knew our parents: we would chug beers off in a corner of the store behind the dusty greeting cards. Steve laughed and said they still had that greeting card rack in there and I told him I knew, that the cards in it were the exact same ones from when I was his age. Kevin offered me a beer. I told him I couldn’t without a straw, and the quiet that fell onto the conversation for the next few seconds was like a great canyon in a desert landscape. Steve reached inside the window of the truck and flipped on the stereo, and the radio came on. It was KLOS. They were playing “Renegade” by Styx.
Kevin crushed his cigarette underneath his shoe and came close enough to me to really get a good look, and he asked me if I was sure this was OK. It would be hard for me to describe how badly I wanted to smile. I could imagine myself in his position, out there on the other side of me, confronted with the scars and the shapes, all the lines that look like they were left on the canvas by a careless or distracted hand. What are we frightened of? Things that can’t hurt us at all. I told him it was fine, it was kind of cool, that most people don’t even ask when you can tell they want to. He looked up from the stretch of former cheekbone he’d been scrutinizing to make eye contact and he smiled, I think because he understood that I was telling him I thought he was brave. Steve stepped up behind him but kept a little distance. Two might have been too many.
But Kevin waved him over and Steve leaned in, and Kevin drew his index finger toward the recessed pit that lies due right of where my old nose was, and he held the tip of his finger near enough to the surface for me to feel his warmth, and said, “Bullet wound?” in a rhythm so casual that I felt like we were old friends, or coworkers, and I corrected him, saying: “Exit wound.” They both gave half-nods and kept craning their eyes around the broad surface before them: down the side, cresting the ear, banking back over above and across the chin, their slowly moving heads like lunar landers.
I got a good look at them while they were circling me as respectfully and surgically as they could: they were a living tableau of denim with some stray silver accents here and there—rings, necklaces. They gave off a vague throb of energy, like thermal images of people on a screen. I recognized that throb. Once I’d held it inside myself, just barely. I felt comfortable with them. So I asked them whether my face freaked them out; I put it exactly like that, because I felt as if I was among members of my tribe. “Does it freak you out, my fucked-up face?” I said.
I don’t really talk like that anymore. Those words, their sound, that summery lilt: all these came from somewhere in the past, or a buried part of the present. Whatever it was—past or present, or unknown future—it seemed to rise from the asphalt like a little invisible cyclone, swirling up around me in my mind. I felt like a panel in a comic book. In a different world, I might have looked like Kevin and Steve instead of like myself. I might have been buying beer and not candy, and smoking Marlboro reds, loitering in the parking lot and waiting for something to happen. The one constant in both possibilities was the liquor store, the parking lot. All roads leading to this quiet, empty place.
John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats; he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his family and is the author of the novels Master of Reality and Wolf in White Van. You can follow him at johndarnielle.tumblr.com and at @mountain_goats.
See this issue for an interview with John Darnielle.