John Darnielle is best known as the guy behind the Mountain Goats, an indie rock icon whose vaguely anguished and kinda pissed-off voice is instantly recognizable. His songs are often carefully constructed narratives full of grim twists and clever turns, so it's maybe no surprise that he's turned toward writing books lately. He came out with a short volume about Black Sabbath a few years back and today his first novel, Wolf in White Van, published by FSG, hits shelves. It's told from the point of view of a man whose face was horribly disfigured in an accident when he was a child and who has since eked out an existence as the inventor of a series of role-playing games he operates by mail. In this section of the novel, the narrator is going to the store while dealing with a lawsuit filed against him by the parents of a couple of kids who died while obsessed with one of his games.
The supermarket is for me what the beach is for other people: it’s eternal. I remember riding there in the car with my mom, once or twice a week every week; that out-of-time hour pushing the cart up and down the aisles, me wandering off to the magazine section when I got bored, always coming back with a copy of Hit Parader in hand. Or Circus. I liked Hit Parader better on principle because it printed song lyrics, but Circus had better stories and a much cooler name. I’d sneak copies into the basket and she’d feign surprise at seeing them when we got to the checkout. Our supermarket outings spanned the years from childhood to adolescence right up until the big change. It was a natural ritual: unscheduled, unchanging, traditional. We’re out of coffee, Sean, do you want to go to the supermarket? Yes. Yes, I do.
So I have to say that I miss shopping. I miss it because it’s something I rarely do for myself at all now, and I miss it even though the thing I miss is not actually shopping, but shopping with Mom, when I was young, before anything happened. Normal adult shopping is something I will never actually do, because it’s no more possible for me to go shopping like normal adults do than it is for a man with no legs to wake up one day and walk. I can’t miss shopping like you’d miss things you once had. I miss it in a different way. I miss it like you would miss a train.
I give a list to Vicky once a week; that’s how I get what I need. Stores where I live are as big as college campuses. But sometimes I’ll get stir-crazy, and I’ll start to resent that I can’t put my life through the same paces everybody else takes for granted. So I’ll go out in the morning, out the door by nine o’clock at the latest, and I’ll substitute the liquor store for the supermarket, since early-riser liquor store shoppers are people who wouldn’t raise their eyes to you if you had a gun pointed at them. Besides which, I have a special place in my heart for the Pomona liquor stores that face the empty boulevards. I grew up in them, kind of: they used to have comic racks.
I needed to stock up on candy. I don’t like asking Vicky to buy as much candy as I actually want to eat; I am ashamed about my candy habit. I will eat it until I feel sick. Once I get to the candy rack I can’t control myself; I buy chewy SweeTarts and Red Hot Dollars, and I buy Magic Colors bubble gum cigarettes, which I like even though they don’t have any actual taste at all. I go home and I eat them all straight from the bag while watching The People’s Court or something, and I make noises like an octopus feeding underwater.
I pulled into the liquor store parking lot in the warm early-summer air and I took one of those big yoga breaths the rehab techs encourage you to take when they think your spirits are sinking. I went in, and I brought a good haul of candy up to the counter, about twenty dollars’ worth. When I paid for it the clerk didn’t even look up. I had a memory as I passed the dirty magazines by the front door, but I tamped it down. I looked away toward the sun still coming up over the Carl’s Jr. across the street.
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.
Steve answered first. “Well, dude,” he said, and something in his tone made me want to cry for joy, “it is for sure fucked up, your face. But actually it’s freakier before you see it up close. Up close, it’s like…” He wasn’t sure how to finish the thought.
“It’s like tire tread,” I offered.
Among the three of us I thought I felt a kinship. Sometimes I think I feel a bond when it’s only my imagination. I’m used to that. But they laughed about the tire tread comparison, and they lit new cigarettes and offered one to me, which I accepted, and it gave me a head rush so strong that my vision washed out and I saw nothing but pulsing yellow for half a minute, and the song on the radio switched over from “Renegade” to “Even the Losers” as they asked me what was the worst part about having taken a bullet to the face and I said it was actually the way it messes up your hearing, which is true. We had a long discussion then: If you could have your face back or your hearing, you’d take your hearing? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I would. But you can still hear stuff, right? Yeah, but it comes in over a constant throbbing hum that keeps me awake at night sometimes. But seriously? You wouldn’t rather look more normal?
This was Steve’s exact phrase: more normal. It registered with me so suddenly, so immediately. I felt a kind of bliss. I wanted to hold Steve like a child. It’s freakier before you see it up close. It’s like tire tread. It’s like a shag rug. It’s like rope burn scars; it’s like a badly paved road; it’s like bent wheel spokes pressed into taffy. I told him the truth: that I didn’t know; that I didn’t know anymore if I wanted to be more normal or not. I had stopped being normal so early that it was hard to imagine being any other way than the way I was. This was normal for me. As far as I could tell, except on days when something went wrong with the routine, I lived a normal life.
Steve looked at Kevin and Kevin looked at Steve and they both said, “Normal life!” while touching their beer cans together like wineglasses, only at waist level, so that no car going past the tucked-away-between-buildings little liquor store parking lot would be able to see them. You know: in case a cop went past. I understood this right away, at some basic level, without having to ask. And this was the source of my bliss, my total quiet contentment: that we were three people who, if it came down to it, could communicate with one another using only gestures.
In the natural course of the conversation I ended up telling them about Carrie and Lance and they asked me if I was going to go to jail. I told them jail wasn’t really on the table, but there was a good chance I’d end up going broke. Kevin told me he sort of knew how I felt, because his mom had kicked him out of the house a while back, and he’d had to sleep in the car until he got up the courage to call his dad. It had taken him a week to do it. He asked his dad if he could stay over at his house until he could save up enough money for first and last and security deposit. He had known that was the most he could ask. His dad didn’t really have any money.
The sun was bright by now. Sometimes you feel like such an old man. For example, when you ask young men what they figure they’ll do with their lives. And you see the look on their faces that says What the fuck are you even talking about, but they’re not saying it to you, they’re bouncing it off each other using a complicated system of facial tics and gestures, which they know they can do because you probably don’t get it. Which is what makes me different: I do get it. I see the gestural semaphore and can read it without having to think twice about it. It is an excruciatingly painful thing to see and feel, so I try to avoid it, but I sensed some connection with Steve and Kevin, so I asked them what they figured they were going to do, you know, after summer, maybe.
Steve said, “Fuck if I know,” and Kevin said, “I’m going to stay as high as I can,” and they bumped fists and then at the exact same moment raised their free hands flat into the air, their palms toward me. They were asking me to give them the high five. I gave them the high five. I felt like the sun had just risen inside me.
“What about you, though, dude?” said Steve. “What the fuck are you going to do?”
I knew what I was going to say; I paused for effect. “I’m going to go home and eat candy and stay high as long as I can,” I said.
Kevin and Steve said staggered No doubts, automatically, reflexively, but then Kevin said: “That whole court thing, though, dude. What are you going to do?” He pulled at his beer.
“Fuck ’em,” I said. When I pronounce the letter f, I spit. Neither of them flinched. I thought a little about Carrie’s parents, to whom I usually bore no particular ill will, because I always try to put myself in the other guy’s shoes. If I had a kid who killed herself because she’d gotten confused about some game she was playing with some stranger far away, I’d hate that stranger, too. That is usually how I think. But I said it again, and I meant it. “Fuck ’em.”
Again Steve and Kevin thunked their beer cans together. “Fuck ’em!” they said, in near unison. I smiled my horrible smile.
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