“You’re the guy in the turtleneck.”
After I’ve been introduced to people for the third or fourth time, that’s what they say. These introductions are a kind of tag-team event, which I will explain. Although it’s not likely that you’ll remember, you need to know who I am, a little something about me.
Think of me as a sort of vapor, you know, a presence without substance. No, that’s not it. I don’t really have what you might call excellent social or communication skills. What I have is a face that’s like a blank screen, really. My facelessness has become my trademark: I’m the man in the turtleneck with the empty face—but you can call me Vapor. Actually, when I say it like that, it sounds like the name of a hot sports car or a rock star, you know, Prince, Sting, Vapor.
Sometimes when I’m out having a drink, I’ll look around and imagine that I am Vapor, that mysterious guy at the bar in the turtleneck with the face nobody can remember. Pretending I’m incognito is unnecessary, but the next best thing to being the man of a thousand faces is being the man with no face at all. As you will come to know.
At some time, you’ve probably been approached by a stranger who says, “You’re so-and-so, aren’t you?” Or another who says, “You probably hear this all the time, but you really do look like so-and-so.” Not me. Me, I take a barstool at The Paradise Lounge, order a drink, and five minutes later Tami, the bartender, says, “How’s it hangin’, stranger?” Again. I’ll hold up my bourbon, and she’ll say, “Oh, yeah, you’re the guy in the turtleneck.” I lower my voice a couple of octaves and whisper, “Vapor’s the name.” She doesn’t hear me.
When our class went on fieldtrips as kids, I was the one responsible for the teacher’s counting heads and then doing the math again.
I’ve never had many friends, which may account for my less than par social skills. Or it could be the other way around. Anyway, remember what I just said, that word “par,” it really turns out to be clever later on when I get into the story, one I call “Chainsaw Putt-Putt.”
What I lack in social graces, social adjustment, I’ve made up for in imagination. I have what my school psychologist, Mr. Spring, called a “rich interior life.” He said I needed to find some healthy, constructive outlet. Which I have done. If he remembered me, which he doesn’t, he’d be proud.
You see, I took his advice, turning a disadvantage into an advantage. Instead of becoming a wallflower who spent his life alone consuming popcorn and beer in front of a television and slowly swelling like a blowfish, I began to live the Vapor life.
Use what you’ve got, Mr. Spring told me.
As you might guess, I wasn’t very popular in school. Never invited to parties, never went to the prom, etcetera. But when I finally began taking my shrink’s advice, things changed. After I graduated, I attended my high school’s Junior-Senior dance five years in a row. I introduced myself to Mr. Spring, the psychologist, every year. I even danced with his wife a couple of times.
In my late twenties, Vapor’s social life orbited around the summer and winter solstices, the months of June and December. In June there were the wedding receptions, in December, the Christmas parties. I’d just show up, introduce myself to someone as a relative or fellow employee and hang around until he or she tired of sustaining a conversation, since that’s not one of my strong suits, whereupon I’d be passed off to someone else, eating and drinking and making merry all the while. I was like one of those guys at rock concerts who floats above the mosh pit.
I know what you’re thinking. Not that I read minds, but I do have a rich interior life. What you’re thinking is, I believe I’ve met that guy before, maybe at so-and-so’s wedding or at last year’s company Christmas party. This turtleneck stuff is starting to sound familiar, that’s what you’re thinking.
Another of my favorite events is the annual Redneck Party in my hometown of Darlington, which is a town too tough to tame if you’re really hip to NASCAR lingo. Every Labor Day weekend, a.k.a. the Southern 500 race weekend, a group of my neighbors puts on a party, something like a block party, only bigger. I’m told they send out invitations, but I always just crashed it. I don’t think anybody asks to see invitations or that anybody counts heads. Besides, what did I have to worry about? Someone would say, “Hey, I think that guy’s crashing our party,” and the other might say, “What does he look like?” And the first would say, “How the hell do I know?” And I would be standing next to the beer keg, nodding a big uh-huh.
You see, I don’t want you to think that I was an unhappy guy. I have a good job at the Darlington Flower Shoppe, which is perfect for a guy like me. But I was what you might call a lonely guy. Those aren’t the same. If I had a gift for gab, I’d explain the difference. What I can say is the world is a very strange place when you can see out but nobody can see in. It’s like the opposite of being a blind man, to have an invisible face. I’m no good at explaining. Let me put it like this: If you are a human being with a heart, you’re gonna have one or two encounters that your heart always remembers. Here’s mine.
It was at the Redneck Party that I saw her, my Rosiland Mammond. I mean saw her again. After high school graduation, she went away to college and became an actress and then a drama teacher in Florence, ten miles away. I’d see her picture in the paper once in a while, and I’d attend performances when she was in Little Theater productions. Okay, she had been nice to me in high school or so I thought, given my limited social skills. Anyway, she knew who I was.
You probably won’t think it’s very romantic, I mean it took place in the high school cafeteria for Pete’s sake, in front of three hundred kids, their faces forming a landscape of pimple volcanoes, each slopping greasy spaghetti into their traps, but I don’t care what you think because my heart has this snapshot of Rosiland Mammon—which is the girl’s name in case you haven’t figured it out—of Rosiland, with her hands framing my cheeks, see, and she’s standing over me at the lunch table, and she’s studying my face, I mean really. She says to me in the most sincere and honest voice—talk about social skills—she says, “How do you do that? What kind of power does it take to empty your face of all expression?”
And now half the lunchroom is looking on. And then she does the thing that I’ll carry to my grave. She says, “Can I touch it?” and if you’re a guy, you can guess what happened next and if you’re not, I can’t tell you in a socially acceptable way. And I say, “Uh-huh.” Then she closes her eyes like a blind person and she touches my face, I mean all over, with her eyes closed. And tears start to bead out and I’m—well, I’m making no expression at all, of course. Finally, she says, “Thank you,” in this real breathy voice, like she just discovered the wonderland of O, and then turns and walks out, to a standing ovation. All afternoon kids were talking about it, and I heard a few of them ask, “Who was that guy?” And the other says, “Don’t know. Never seen him before.”
So, I’m standing beside one of the beer kegs at the Redneck Party in Darlington, the town that’s too tough to tame, and I see Rosiland Mammon, who’s with some beefy, blockhead guy with a fifty-dollar haircut—I know what I’m talking about here—and wearing five-hundred dollars’ worth of Harley leather. I really, really hate that sort, you know, the country club kind who wants to play bad-boy phony-fart biker-thug on weekends? That type. Anyway, what I see is Rosiland Mammon and this puffy banker biker who’s sort of bearing down on her, holding his Budweiser up like he’s gonna hit her with it, and shaking his Polo cologned jaws in her face like a rabid Saint Bernard.
And she’s got tears in her eyes.
It came to me like a revelation at a redneck party. I wanted to pull the plug on the CD player, stand on the keg and shout, “Hey, y’all, watch this!” Then I’d mutilate Mr. G.Q. Cycleboy.
At that second, Rosiland Mammon slowly lifted these pleading eyes—and she looked at me, with this expression from a silent movie all over her face and then Mr. Phony-Frat Fart-Faced Biker-Boy has her by the arm and drags her away, and they disappear into the crowd.
Suddenly the old feeling came back. All my vapor evaporated. I was my old faceless self again. A kid standing alone. At once, this loneliness like a huge black vat of history starts rising around me and pretty soon I’m treading water in it, and I’m getting this old film footage that my heart has tried to X, like my childhood, and how my mom, and that time playing snake when blah, blah, blah, and then I’m thinking of when I tried to, you know, put an end to it all by cutting off my faceless head with a chainsaw. But mostly I’m thinking about that silent movie look on Rosiland Mammon’s face, and the gnawing feeling in my gut that would go away once I’d wasted Mr. Two-wheel Tubby-Boy.
I probably should have left out that part, you know, the part that now I have to tell you about because when the words start coming out—. It really isn’t the story I’m trying to tell you, but once you’ve mentioned the two words in the same sentence—those would be suicide and chainsaw—. So here’s the short version, so I can get on with it, which maybe isn’t such a bad idea because the chainsaw figures in the story. Par for the course.