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It was the summer I was fourteen that I came to know The Man Without a Face. Everybody called him that for the obvious reason. Nobody was quite sure how it had happened, although the prevailing theory was a car accident plus exploding gasoline. He came in his ancient car to the village near our summer cottage to shop once a week and would stalk into the grocery as though he didn't know that everyone in sight was carefully avoiding looking at him.
The first week we were up there for vacation we almost collided with him as we came out of the grocery. Grudgingly he held the door for Mother. He didn't offer to carry any of the heavy bags filled with groceries. The moment we were through, the door slammed behind us.
"You'd think," Mother said, piling bags in the back of the station wagon, "that he'd do something about it. After all. There is plastic surgery. That' s what it's for. Not just Aunt Tandy's face-lift. " Aunt Tandy was one of the staples of the summer community. Unkind people said she'd had her face lifted so often that they used a zipper instead of stitches.
"Gruesome," Gloria said. She had come along to the village for the ride so that she could linger over one diet soda at the malt shop in case her current interest, known as Peerless Percy, happened along. Gloria's my sister and one of the main reasons I wanted to get away from home. And now, thanks to her last-minute change of mind, I was in a real mess.
Until this summer Gloria, who is almost seventeen, was going away to boarding school which was why I didn't strain myself about getting into St. Matthew's where, according to family tradition, I was supposed to go atfourteen. With Gloria gone, life would be bearable at home. But then, right before school closed, she finked out and said she didn't want to go to boarding school in the fall after all, after I had more or less deliberately flunked the St. Matthew's entrance exams.
When Mother told me about Gloria's not leaving, I nearly blew my lid. "She's been going to go to that blasted school all her life," I said. "I've been counting on it."
"Well, she's not going now. She says she'd rather stay at home. Frankly, Chuck, I'm delighted. And it wouldn't be such a bad idea if you tried to get on with her. She's older and-let's face it-brighter than you are and can help you a lot with the subjects you seem to be failing. "
Tact wasn't one of Mother's strong subjects. But knowing that Gloria's IQ tests always came out at about genius level (at least that's what Mother told her friends), and mine just average, didn't bug me as much as some other things.
"I don't want to be helped," I said. "Not by Gloria," and split before I got the usual arguments.
That was in the spring. Now it was summer, with still no solution in sight...
Mother and I drove back to the cottage, winding along
the shore road. Our community isn't grand enough to sport a yacht club, but there's a white frame house built along one edge of the harbor that acts as a sort of club' for the summer people, most of whom have small boats of one kind or another. I was, as usual, thinking about my problem.
"I've got to go to St. Matthew's," I said, after a while.
"Well, you had your chance and you muffed it. You sat for the entrance exam and you flunked it. So how are you going to manage it?"
Yes, how? She had me there, and we both knew it.
As we drove back to the cottage I felt a general depression settle down over me, and took refuge in what I hoped was a dignified silence, glancing in the rear-view mirror every now and then to see if she noticed.
Mother's very pretty-curly brown hair and brown eyes and a triangular face. People say it's like a cameo -- whatever that is. Gloria looks like her and so does Meg, my younger sister. I look like my father, with blond straight hair, kind of greenish eyes and what my last stepfather, The Hairball, used to call a stupid expression. That was after he and Mother decided to divorce. Until then he had tried to be a pal. Mother said once, shortly after they had separated a year ago, and after she had had two martinis and was beginning a third, that I was one of the reasons for the divorce.
"He's marvelous with boys, Chuck. Everyone except you. The kids on the campus liked him. He could always talk to them when they turned off most older people. And I really thought he'd be great for you, since you need a father so badly. But trying to reach you is like trying to break into the First National Bank. Nowhere. You just sit there with that...that..." She was trying not to say "stupid," because one of the analysts at school had told her she shouldn't use value judgments on me like that. But her control wasn't the greatest at that minute. "That stupid took, Charles. And the best man in the world can only take so much of that."
I shrugged. That's one of the things I've learned how to do really well. It saves a lot of trouble and it drives both Mother and Gloria up the wall.
"Don't shrug your shoulders at me," Mother said, her voice rising, as it always does when she has a few drinks.