He was a good boy; “fairly handsome” some would say, while “not quite right” was the opposing opinion of many. His parents were strict but no more abusive than the corporal-punishment du jour for that era. The most damaging abuse he doled upon himself.
He realized early on that he was odd and learned the hard way that with peculiarity came repulsion, rejection and ridicule. And thus, he quickly came to hate himself and in turn believed no one could love him, for his mind was his universe, and in his universe he was of no good to anyone.
But the little boy loved August; not only because it was the laziest of the summer months and he was free from classmates and bullying, but because in his town it was the start of Halloween merchandise in the L&S Variety Store. His Mom would drive him downtown to choose his costume, and he couldn’t wait to get home and put it on. Yes, he had begun his own Halloween tradition.
Each year in late August, unbeknownst to his stay-at-home Mom, he would suit up his new costume, sneak outside, and walk around the block of his blue-collar, suburban neighborhood. Enjoying the invisibility of the mask, he always made several loops, staring at neighbors in their yards, certain they were oblivious to the identity of this odd little boy. He recalls those summer masquerades as the “happy times” of his childhood.
In this particular August, his costume was the best yet! A pirate – brown and gold satin-like body suit and a plastic snarling face with actual black fuzz forming a life-like mustache and beard. Feeling authentically “pirate” as he rounded the block, he growled “Shiver me timbers” continuously in the most menacing voice he could muster.
The Stakovich boys and their friends were loitering in the vacant lot at the end of the block, as the boy approached. They were “the big kids” rumored to run with the Weston Gang. “Hey, check out Captain Hook” one of them yelled. The other four pissed themselves in laughter. “Hey pirate boy, come over here!”
The child was scared. Knowing they would pursue if he ran, he obeyed and approached them, trembling. They encircled him and began pushing him hard from one to the other, until he finally fell down to the dusty dirt and began to cry out loud, hating himself even more for being so pathetic.
The thugs stopped their assault. Andy, the apparent leader, ripped off the boy’s mask and stamped it into the dirt. “Get the hell outta here, retart! You ever parade this way again, we’ll pound the livin’ shit outta you!”
Whimpering and shaking, the boy clawed his mask out of the dirt and sobbed home in a state of shock. He snuck back into his house never telling his mother, washed his mask in the bathroom sink, and applied scotch tape and band-aids to the cracks and breaks, while the rips and tears on his inside continued to bleed out.
A young man of thirty sits before an enormous old dresser, the likes of which antique-hunters would kill for. A refugee from the home of his deceased parent’s bedroom, it sits now in the three-room house he purchased for only thirty-five hundred dollars in the Soulville neighborhood of Memphis. The doors and windows were barred and boarded when he moved in eight years ago. Slowly and painstakingly, he removed the barricades, patched the walls, and plugged the plumbing. It took some time, but his neighbors eventually accepted him as an honorary hood rat, a brother in suffering. The young man liked the hood, because it made him feel invisible again.
Now he stared across the dresser to its attached mirror and into a pair of eyes of the deepest green. As a boy, his parents’ friends would visit on Friday nights to play cards, smoke cigarettes and drink beer at the kitchen table. When he came down to say good-night, they’d always tell him, “You have the most striking green eyes.”
The eyes in the mirror stared back at a pirate mask, cracked and crumpled, held together with yellowed scotch tape and band-aids. The whites of those striking eyes have long since hemorrhaged to blood-red. And now, in this decaying room as the late afternoon sun forms laser beams of dust, a scarred and purple hand levitates to the mask, and as the mirrored eyes watch intently, slowly pulls it off.
The mask removed, the hand returns to the dresser and resumes its grasp of the 9mm Ruger pistol. The man chuckles as is always the case when he looks at his face. He can’t avoid the irony of The Incredible Melting Man, that low-budget, adorably bad sci-fi movie he watch repeatedly as a kid. Because NOW, he IS the melting man; a man without a nose, without lips, without teeth, and without ears. Black, purple and red “leather” occupy the cheeks, chin and forehead where once was his skin.
The movie-channel in his head switches from the melting man to The Event. He was nineteen years old; on his way to Brooklyn to inspect what would most likely become his first apartment, when the incendiary explosion literally ripped the crowded subway-car in two.
The people closest to the blast died instantly. The next layer of strap-hangers on either side of ground-zero were on fire, and screaming. He was next in line to burn. He was dazed and deaf but for an excruciating ringing in his head. He was about to ignite when he realized he was only three feet from the now-opened train door. He was ready to run when his hearing returned, but all he heard was crackling, sizzling and screaming.
Something stopped him in mid-flight, compelling him to turn to his right and scan the rear of the subway car. There was a sound; high pitched; the screams of children. Three young girls were trapped in the rear of the car by a wall of fire; a gut-wrenching human inferno that he concluded was their mother.
He peered outside again and saw his survival waiting only three feet away. He could bolt now and in two seconds be safe. But he knew he couldn’t, for in fact he had already made up his mind.
He shimmied between the panicked commuters and hurdled past the burning mother. Surrounded by fire, he kicked out the emergency window and deftly lowered each girl out of the train. Flames were everywhere now, and he was ablaze.
The last thing he remembered after diving through the window was being doused in the foam of fire extinguishers. Two months later, he awoke from an induced coma in the Burn Unit of the Colombia Presbyterian Hospital. It was there he spent the next eighteen months followed by another year in an acute rehab clinic, before finally, with the aid of local social workers, moving into his Memphis house.
Now, locked in on his own green eyes gazing back from their faceless skull, he raises the gun, fully loaded, and puts the barrel to his temple. He freezes momentarily, again caught up in the irony, for he realizes that he doesn’t know the best way to blow his brains out. “Shit!” he thinks. “With my luck, I’ll end up a quadriplegic! Haha! A faceless quadriplegic! Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse.”
Then it hits him, like poetry sliding from the face of a tombstone into his brain. He will stick the barrel into the hole where once was his nose! “Now that’s appropriate!” he thought. “Kill the face that killed me, haha!”
A loud knocking on his front door startled him to the point of nearly, prematurely, pulling the trigger. He didn’t have a silencer, and it was his plan that his body would remain undiscovered for weeks if not months. The mystery visitor knocked again. He put down the Ruger and walked to the door.
He cracked open the front door, standing back in the darkness to mask his face. Through dusk’s fading light, he gazed at a Muslim woman wearing a burqa. “What do you want?” he asked coldly.
“Are you John Watowski?” she asked.
“No. He died.” John replied.
“C’mon, I know it’s you”, she argued. “I need to talk to you.”
“What would a Muslim woman want with a Polock in the middle of Soulville?” he taunted.
“Muslim? I’m Italian, John!” she snapped. “My name is Maria Dinelli.”
“Then why the burqa? Lemme guess. Homegrown terrorist?” he mocked.
“No”, Maria answered quietly, and as she lowered her face-veil, she whispered, “I wear it to hide… this…”
John gazed at yet another faceless skull, but for once, it was not his own.
“John, I’ve searched for you for what feels like a lifetime. It was me and my sisters that you saved on that subway train eleven years ago. I came here, because I wanted to say thank-you to the man to whom I owe my life.” Maria pleaded, “Please John, can I come in?”
Looking at her… through her… past her… his mind fell helpless to the strangest thought, and he said to her, “Do you like old science fiction movies? I could really dig watching The Incredible Melting Man right now.”
She nodded, and he let her in.