The Face-Blind

Gary Fincke Click to

gfincke-103Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for short fiction, Gary Fincke is the author of many books, including the poetry collection Standing Around the Heart (Arkansas) and the short story collections Sorry I Worried You and The Stone Children, both published by the University of Missouri Press.  He currently directs the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University, where he holds a distinguished chair.

Once, discovering a crying child in a Pittsburgh department store, I knelt to ask that girl the lost and found questions, her name, her address, and who had mislaid her in Gimbel’s, a store that featured thirteen floors of merchandise.

Back then, toys were above everything but furniture, but we were on the first floor with perfume, cosmetics, jewelry, and well-dressed saleswomen who offered samples.  Security, like her grandmother, was somewhere else, and when she clutched my hand, the nearby escalator so strongly suggested how easily something awful could happen that I half-expected an abduction alarm.

The tiny wisps of sprayed scents made the air seem funereal, the shoppers mostly old women who had driven to Pittsburgh since World War II, so few of them by then the store was rumored to be going bankrupt.  But suddenly, in Gimbel’s, no one hailing that girl or me, not even when we approached the gilded, outside doors, I watched our reflection coming toward us and briefly recognized the dreadful alternatives to a common scene.

I warned my daughter, when she was seven, about not paying attention to where I was in a one-story department store that was spread out as an anchor store at the end of a Harrisburg area mall.  Three times in fifteen minutes.  And then, when she ran off to look at toys in an adjoining aisle without me, instead of cautioning her for a fourth time, I slipped behind a pillar and watched her from hiding.  It took nearly a minute before she looked around and saw that I was gone.  I watched her nearly spin as she searched.  For a few seconds, her face appeared to be blank, and I waited until she looked terrified before I stepped out when her back was turned and walked up to her as if nothing had happened.

Recently, a woman from Pittsburgh has revealed she is unable to recognize faces.  Her daughter’s teacher.  A friend from church.  The wait staff person who has just visited her restaurant table.  Her daughter, seven years old, prompts the names of neighbors, reminds her which of her friends have arrived for sleepovers. Like a bride receiving guests, she’s taught herself to smile. A wonder we recognize anyone, she says, so much we have in common.  According to the article in the newspaper about her, the condition she has is called prosopagnosia.

Thirty-five years ago I bowled on Friday afternoons with public school  teachers like myself who needed to drink and drive a sixteen pound ball into the pocket to feel better about another week of large group discipline situations—cafeteria duty, study hall, or a room full of in-school suspensions. My students ranged in age from fifteen to eighteen, college, work, or trouble bound, some of the girls so beautiful I trained myself to look over their heads to where I needed to concentrate on the sluggish and bored.

In early March, two of those bowlers were put on paid leave for alleged misconduct. Sixth and third grade, they taught, those men married like I was, with daughters, but by the end of the school year the one who photographed his eight-year-old students found a new job teaching fourth grade in a school district an hour away because the principal commended his teaching in a letter for his file, passing him on like rumors because he hadn’t touched those girls or asked them to undress, the photos explained as a sentimental hobby.

In the news, a few months ago, the story of a nine-year-old girl’s unusual death.  Because she needed to be taught a lesson, she’d been forced to keep running for three hours.  For stealing candy. For being selfish.  Her grandmother prodded her and screamed, making sure she didn’t stop jogging in place, and apparently, she didn’t until she collapsed into seizures and died like some unprepared marathon runner “hitting the wall.”

The girl who died was on life support for a few days.  She was so dehydrated her sodium level fell below what sustains life.  The grandmother, the reports say, worked her over like a drill sergeant while her stepmother, within earshot and sight line, took care of her own three-year-old.

One night, when she was nine, our daughter screamed.  When my wife and I opened her door, she was standing on her bed, her pajamas pressed against her body.  A man’s face had been at the window, she said.  He wore a Phillies hat and he looked like a Halloween pumpkin.  My wife calmed her down while I went outside to where I found a paint-splattered cinderblock that man had left behind, inviting us to check the garages of our neighbors to identify similar splatters on things stored in one of them.  Or maybe, I thought, a supply of cinderblocks kept by a man who lugged them around the neighborhood as ladders while looking for windows where the drapes were open.

Years later, my wife told me the man who bought that house from us when we sold it had confessed to raping “his girls” in that bedroom where our daughter slept from ages six to ten.

Empathy is often said to be the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s place, understanding hisorher feelings and desires, to, in the end, experience an appropriate emotional response.      Just as often, I’ve noticed, the definition declares that empathy is the cornerstone of morality.

After we moved, the distance to our new home less than a mile, my wife and I would occasionally walk back to that house where the never-captured Peeping Tom had spent at least one night at the window.  In less than a year the new owners took out the hedges along the edge of the property and replaced them with a fence.  They dug out the shrubbery that nearly surrounded the front porch and left it bare.  The yard filled with a litter of toys.  “It looks terrible,” my wife said, and I agreed.  It was hardly recognizable, as if we’d never lived there.

After a short while, that child I found in Gimbel’s stopped whimpering.  She clutched my hand.  We finished half a circuit around the first floor before I saw where a set of offices were located.  An employee in one of them said he would be happy to broadcast the name of the child’s grandmother.

A man I knew when I was a high school teacher in upstate New York told me how, at Niagara Falls, a woman he’d never seen before bent down to say to his young daughter, “What a darling you are,” then followed those words quickly with “Want to see?” while she lifted her and swung her high.  He thought, at that moment, the woman was the one person who would throw a child over the railing, and then, he was just as certain she was one of a few who would steal a child, who would flee into the crowd where she had accomplices who would pass his daughter like a relay baton while she disappeared among thousands of families because she carried a coat to wear over her distinctive purple sweater.  He rushed at that woman, tore his daughter from her arms, and she cursed him as if he was a soldier assigning her child to a boxcar.

At the time, I thought this man was someone who exaggerated, someone who embellished stories to make an impression.  “What did the woman look like?” I said, and the man shrugged.

“I have no idea,” he said.  “All I remember is that purple sweater.”

Shortly after we moved to our new house, my wife and I walked the nearby highway where a man, we’d read in the newspaper, had thrown his daughter in front of a truck.  We watched headlights approach from both directions.  We gauged the speeds from the limit of forty-five to excesses of sixty or more.  To get to a convenience store, we crossed the highway during breaks in the traffic.  After we left the store, while we were waiting to cross again, I placed my hands on her back and said, “Imagine.”

“What’s wrong with you?” she said as lights came from both sides like testimony.

Prosopagnosia is a word I’ve never encountered before, yet when I investigate it online, I discover dozens of sites—questions from those who believe they’re living with this condition, blogs from the self-proclaimed, jargon-filled medical tracts.  On one of those sites I log on to a test to determine whether I recognize fear, anger, and joy in faces, whether those emotions reveal themselves to me in the faces of samples.  Which doesn’t seem to be a test for prosopagnosia, because anyone who fails to distinguish the emotions exhibited by the expressions presented wouldn’t really see the humanity in a face at all.

Because I write biweekly columns, my wife and I study the opinion page of our local paper, especially looking for letters to the editor that react to what I write.  She was the first to see the letter from the man who had raped three girls from three different families, apologizing from prison, acknowledging that his cellmate had written the letter for him as he dictated.

He used the word “molested” as if he was whispering in church.  Both my wife and I, because all of those girls were younger than nine, vowed never to forgive, ready to remember like families who inherit vengeance.

An elementary school sits almost directly across the street from our house, reminding us five days a week about the size and shape of second and third and fourth grade, what we believed he still wanted as he dictated, “I hope and pray for them to heal.”  As if God would intervene, sending heaven’s Red Cross to the country of damage.

Shortly afterward, at the school playground, I watched other peoples’ girls while shame surrounded my eyes like gnats.  I’d told my wife I hoped the inmate secretary would think to shorten penitence with a belt around the throat.  She said she was trying to imagine the penmanship, the lines and loops.  “It had to be clumsy,” she said.  “It was probably printed.”

And I kept to myself how I was sure the letter had been written on paper torn from the kind of tablet I carried home from grade school, passing pairs of girls who always dawdled, busy talking until one of them turned up a driveway and the other cut across a wooded lot to save herself three blocks of walking home alone.

The stepmother of the girl who was run to death was nine months pregnant when the girl died.  She gave birth shortly after, conjuring in me the word replaceable.  A videotape from the dead girl’s school bus had recorded the grandmother  declaring to the driver, “I gonna run her till she can’t run no more” just before she initiated the punishment she thought was appropriate.

Our daughter has two daughters of her own now.  They live in California, and  one night our daughter called to tell us one of her paintings had been rented by the producers of the television series Californication. She sounded excited, but we didn’t subscribe to the channel that was showing the series.  The painting, my daughter explained, is in David Duchovny’s bedroom, just watch when you get the chance.

Months later, we rented the series from NetFlix.  The painting didn’t appear in episodes one or two, but there were occasional glimpses of nude woman rising from Duchovny’s designer sheets.  And though our daughter had told us the painting was in episode three, I still followed those bodies past a wall of unfamiliar art.  Soon, because he fucked a succession of women in that bed, his teenage daughter often nearby, she, too, saw those women naked, entering like a maid, all of them in that bedroom with my daughter’s painting in Los Angeles where my daughter lives with her daughters, eight and five, who ran naked, last summer, under the sprinkler in our Pennsylvania yard.

I fast-forwarded through each external shot, hurrying toward my daughter’s painting in David Duchovny’s bedroom, the naked woman in episode three a creative writing student like those I teach, nineteen or twenty, sliding one step to the side so I could see the chairs suspended in the tumultuous blue sky of my daughter’s rented painting on either side of that girl’s bare shoulders. She talked and talked until, at last, she turned into profile, her breast the focal point of that artless scene, the painting completely exposed, half of the dark chairs silhouetted by the faint light my daughter allowed behind that storm of identical chairs in David Duchovny’s bedroom.

My wife and I eventually learned from the newspaper that the man who bought our house raped each daughter at an earlier age than the one before.  In order to have  privacy, that bedroom where our daughter slept, where, I’m sure, those girls must have slept as well, had two doors that had to be locked.  Surely, over a period of years, the mother would try one of those doors when she noticed her husband and one of the girls had vanished.  She might even have taken to her tiptoes at that window used by the pumpkin-headed man.

“What kept those three girls from screaming?” my wife said.  “How could they stay living in that house after he abused them?  How could they stand to see him every day?”

“They probably learned to look right past him,” I said.  “You know, the middle distance or something like that.”

“I don’t believe that,” she said.  “And why didn’t we recognize who he was when we sold our house to him?”

“”I didn’t look,” I said.

My wife frowned.  “That’s just like you,” she said.  “Never noticing anything important.  I bet you couldn’t identify him if he walked into our house.”

When I look up articles on empathy, I find a consensus that reads something like this: Empathy is important in the development of a moral sense, a person’s beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels.

The sixth grade teacher who bowled with me was eventually fired. During that spring, that man’s daughter listened five days a week to my lessons on grammar, writing, and literature for the New York Regents Exam she’d pass in June, all semester babysitting for my three children, ages three to eight.  Her father would be watching television when I walked her to the door after midnight, concentrating, most Saturdays, on Chiller Theater even when she said, “Hello.”  Two or three times I glanced at the aliens or zombies before I turned and left, not saying a word about the woman hired as his substitute or how no one took his place at bowling, his average minus ten used to compute his team’s score each Friday, that number steady as a pulse propelled by machine until the league season ended.
During the summer that man quietly moved without announcing where.  The third-grade teacher took his photographs to a school near Rochester.  It was a time when Polaroids appeared slowly, so he would have had to watch light and shadow developing into a girl’s body as he counted the necessary seconds, saying, “Yes, good, perfect, and thank you” when the image, at last, showed itself complete.

In that mall, among all those toys, there was such joy in my daughter’s face as she saw me, I could barely stand myself, sick with recognizing an evil selfishness in myself.

When we visited in December, our granddaughters slept over with us in the apartment we rented.  One morning I convinced them to write and illustrate books of their own.
The cookie in my five year-old granddaughter’s self-illustrated book had long hair cut into bangs so much like hers I said, “The gingerbread man is a girl,” but she explained he was wearing a wig. Like it always does in these stories, her cookie escaped the kitchen to run and play, but on the last page that gingerbread man was trapped inside the mouth of a scarlet fox, the wig gone in the final picture, lost, perhaps, in the struggle.

When I asked why he was smiling as he was being swallowed, she said, “Because he only has one face.”

Her older sister drew twelve pages about a princess who needed to be saved.

She was locked in a red-brick tower for a dozen sunny days, her hair tightly curled and long, but nowhere near what would welcome a prince to climb.  One line per page, her princess sang an abridged “Over the Rainbow.”  Bluebirds dotted every clear sky.  Lemon drops sparkled, then faded, but as the book ended, the prince, arriving on horseback, applauded but didn’t dismount.

“What’s next?”I asked.

“The rest of the story,” she whispered, “is a secret-secret.”

Later that day, my daughter, thirty-seven now, volunteered that giving birth introduces the worst fear we can possibly know.  As an illustration, she told me a story of her own.

“Remember when I rode around for a few months, the year I was sixteen, in David Dixon’s fast, expensive car?”

“Vaguely,” I said, not telling her that I couldn’t even remember who David Dixon was.

“Then you remember that he killed his next girl friend,” she said.  “And he was just driving her a couple of miles to the movies.”

I knew she meant me to understand this was about her daughters, five and eight, the probabilities of danger they’re facing as they grow up, but then she leaned toward me as if those girls were eavesdropping.  “I found out David Dixon’s dead, too.  On the Internet when I looked him up.  He died in another country, one of those places you’ve never heard of where nobody travels.”

As if he had been a criminal, I thought.  As if he had been disposed.

The last day of our visit I gave each girl a piece of thin red cellophane cut into the shape of a fish.  “A miracle fish,” I told them.  “It tells your fortune if you hold it in your hand for a minute.”

They watched the miracle fish swim on their palms until the cellophane curled into fickle, false, and finally, lying still, trustworthy.  Despite the novelty, their futures looked to be as unsurprising as the stories on their collection of Disney DVDs.

In the morning, I hugged those girls goodbye and flew two thousand miles into winter.

A man, once, sent me messages that detailed his desire to be the serial killer of girls so young their bodies were hairless. He said he lived in Virginia, not far, and he wanted to leave his wife for girls like the littles whose photos he began to send when, because I needed them to write an essay about child pornography,  I didn’t shut his comments off.
Attention-getting, those pictures, like previews or headlines, each girl posed to bring a prison sentence. I remember their photographs each time the evening news carries a story like the one he wrote, driving me outside to dilute that memory with walking fast like I did, this week, when I heard about one more man arrested for storing child photos, unwittingly sharing with somebody whose job it is to pose each day as a preteen.

During my last such walk I wished that my cyber child-killer had turned out to be a policeman baiting like-minded men to reciprocal sharing of photographs.  I followed the approaching stratus clouds into the orange and scarlet of a late winter sunset, how they split the deep tangerine from the blue-going-violet during twilight‘s beautiful cruelty.  Each hidden rustling sounded like words of dark, prophetic purposes, and I remembered that not one word that chat room pervert had sent me mentioned a characteristic of a child’s face.

When my children were young, the milk carton that often sat on the table during meals always featured the face of a missing child.  “Have You Seen Me?” its caption read, and those faces reminded me to be thankful even as my children yammered their petty complaints.

Eventually, milk cartons stopped showing lost children, but now those missing children’s faces show up inside my income tax instructional booklet.  I turn the pages, looking at each child, and all of them seem hopelessly lost.  How are they chosen from among the thousands who are painfully eligible?

There are computer projections now of how those children, some of them lost for five or even ten years, would look in the present.  My eyes shift from the photographs to the computer images and back again, searching for how facial features have been transformed.  After a few minutes I try not to imagine what most missing children end up looking like.

Some things need to be impossible.

No one recognizing a child so vulnerable to abduction from a failing department store.
A child run for three hours while no one recognizes her condition is nearing death.
A mother, her daughter there to coach her, searching, without recognition, the mug book of the everyday for the identity, not only of acquaintances, but also of those she loves.
No one recognizing that three sisters were being repeatedly raped by their father in my daughter’s former bedroom.  And how selfish I am to think a location I’m familiar with makes it worse.

Each blessing is lace. In Gimbel’s, at last, a woman recognized her granddaughter’s trusting face.