Face Time

I WAS TEARING THE SKINS OFF SHALLOTS LAST NIGHT when Mother came in wearing Fifth Face.

Fifth Face looks like Julie Andrews, but the thing doesn’t fit Mother’s skull. You can see wires sticking out behind. Fifth Face speaks in Zenlike one-liners that I suspect are lifted from Kierkegaard, although we don’t have any Kierkegaard in the house so I can’t check.

“How close men, despite all their knowledge, live to madness, Jane,” Mother said.

I said nothing. It’s best not to speak to Mother. Fifth Face isn’t often dangerous, but why take a risk? You can’t win against Mother.

You never know what Face Mother will choose to wear. First Face cries alone in the darkened bedroom, and you can get on with your day. Mother rarely wears Second Face, but it scares the blood out of us because she’ll suddenly dive for the knife drawer, trying to harm herself. Fourth Face is awful, but in a verbal way; she’ll keep at you, trying to drive you crazy. Some typical Fourth Face lines:

“You’re different from other children. That’s why we keep you home.”

“The pills make you so much nicer. Always take your pills, darling.”

“Why can’t you be like your sister? So well-adjusted.”

Yes, Margie is well-adjusted. Adjusted to denial. She pretends not to know the difference between Mother’s Faces. But she knows better than to open the dark bedroom when Mother’s wearing First, or to say a single trembling word to the worst of them all — Third Face.

Today is a Third Face day. Third Face is a twisted mask of grief and pain. Eyes a solid black. I catch one glimpse, and I scream. Run for the basement. Mother is right behind, moaning in that horrible Third Face monotone.

“…jane jane jane, oh, oh oh, smashed glass in the sideboard why why why the cat is dead dead dead dead dead dead, can’t live like this can’t live like this can’t live like this.”

Mother is not human. I can hear her joints grind, hear the hiss of magnetic tape as she speaks, hear the clicks and blips of her synapses putting her thoughts together. This must end. A child should not have to live in fear.

I’ve done something about it. I called a Social Worker.

Yes, someone needs to intervene, before Mother puts on Second Face and hurts herself, or gets inside Third Face and hurts Margie or me. So I sneaked into Mother’s office, where I’m not allowed. I rifled through a file drawer. I found a phone number. The Social Worker is on her way.

Doorbell. Margie’s mouth opens.

I whisper to Margie what I’ve done.

And my stupid, naïve sister, what does she do?

“Moooootherrrrr! The Social Worker’s here!”

Idiot! This was our chance!

What happens next, I was not expecting. Mother comes down the stairs. She has a new Face on. I have not seen this Face before. I will call it Sixth Face.

I inspect Sixth Face with a sidelong glance. It is serene and composed. Reminds me of Grace Kelly. I can’t see any join lines to the skull. Sixth Face emits a soothing Muzak melody that I’m certain is intended to mask the clicks and hisses of Mother’s thoughts.

The Social Worker sits down. And it’s going all wrong. The conversation is all about me. What I’ve done. How I behave. My pills. Progress reports. The whole time, my silly cow of a sister stares at me, a tear running down her fat nose. And Mother, damn her, she’s got that Face on that never once betrays a hint of what it’s hiding.

The Social Worker and Mother have a hushed talk on the porch. The Social Worker leaves. No rescue for us.

It’s time for drastic action. First, these pills go right down the toilet.

I found a new Face inside Mother’s keepsake box, right on top of my kindergarten art. This Face is just my size. I try it on. It fits, with no joins or slips.

In the mirror, my new Face stares back. The eyes are red, the cheeks slashed with glass.

Game on, Mother.