Authors: Eli Gottlieb
The Face Thief
For my parents:
Leonard Gottlieb, 1917–2008
Esther Gottlieb, 1921–2010
ain had a voice. It spoke to her as she shot off the top step and forward into space, patiently explaining that this was not how her life was supposed to end. It was supposed to end, the voice whispered, with her enjoying her dotage in some great British country house, filled with mullioned windows and about a mile of lawn. Or before a roaring fire of some kind, chilled gin in hand, witty remark at the ready. Returned afterward to her upstairs room, there’d be the littlest hiccup, the tiniest blip in the cardiac flow. And then she’d be lowered quietly and forever into distinguished oblivion.
A rhythmic pinging interrupted the daydream. It resembled the noise of someone counting change. Where was she having these thoughts, exactly? Were her eyes open or shut? She couldn’t tell.
Something awful was happening. She was certain of that. She was tumbling downward in what felt like slow motion while experiencing a terrible concussive series of blows to the head. These seemed a confirmation of sorts; the fit end to a long period of wondering what was going to happen next.
was going to happen next. A stair smashed into the orbital bone around her eye. Another one fractured a rib. She wanted to explain to someone that always, from childhood on, as a girl capering butterfly-bright around the house slung over Duxbury Bay, she’d had her realest conversations with books, with the endless piles of poetry and old novels whose characters moved with grave faces around the important questions of life, and that this, which was happening now, was something they would have
The next stair slammed into her upper forehead and opened up the skin, thereby causing a spray of arterial blood to darken the auburn hair once fingered by Joey Vandermere while they sat kissing in a car parked at Russian Hill below a bowl of summer stars, his voice soft in her ear as he whispered that college would soon draw each of them away into the far, cold reaches of the future, and in the meantime, did she love him long enough to let him unbutton her pants?
She continued standing and then falling, head over heels. The staircase seemed endless. And as she fell, she remembered not just Joey but all of them, a solemn procession of boys and then men, each of them taking his turn and passionately pleading his case. Many of them were married. These were invariably the most winsome in their appeal. Their self-adoring looks; their sly and roguish winks and grins: one of the things they had in common was the way each gave signs of “understanding” her, and of seeing her “special inner grace,” even as they took their clothes off with their faces gone suddenly cold with sexual concentration.
Had she married one of them herself? Had she finally become more than that girl who still sat in her room, lifting her eyes again and again from her books, and looking into the onrushing dark of the future? Had she become famous and had children of her own?
She hit the ground floor hard, and as she lay there unmoving, she seemed to see as if down the barrel of a long lens to the cropped image of her childhood dog, Brandy, rearing up before her with its bright button eyes and its pink scrap of tongue. Then the lens pulled back to include the trees, homes, mountains and rivers around the dog, and then drew farther back in such a way that the earth slowly revealed itself to be a ball of clouds and blue water resting calmly on a palm of air. She continued to recede backward until the planet, eventually, winked out of sight in the dark immensity of space.
The pinging grew louder. She suddenly thought she understood. The pinging was coming from the large wooden metronome that had crouched on a shelf for the entirety of her childhood and spoken its clicking language as she sat playing her violin. Probably she was still a child, lying abed and dreaming she was an adult to whom terrible things had just happened. Probably, for that, she was just now coming home from school, rounding the corner at a tilt, zooming into the house with a breathy slam of the screen door behind her, and then up the stairs to where the violin lay in its case like a sleeping child. Tenderly she drew it out and placed her chin on the chin rest. She rosined her bow and pulled it along the strings. A clear voicelike note sang out. This was music. The metronome ticked like a single person applauding in an empty room. She was playing a Brahms composition. It was intensely sad and beautiful; it seemed as if the darkness were expressing itself. She played and played, while the metronome applauded, her bow leaped and wiggled on the strings, and the music mounted on a ladder into the air. The sound was imps and demons; it was gas become liquid and flowing upward, impossible. Then she was playing the fiendishly difficult “vivacissimo” passage with its triple stops and it was going perfect. This was a bursting-forth, a flowering of her. She drew from the instrument the last beautiful note and opened her eyes.
When her vision cleared, she saw several women standing before her. Were they angels? They had little pins on the whiteness of their breasts and small boatlike white caps on their heads. One of them leaned forward. The ongoing pinging sound seemed to be calling something of terrible importance to order. It was coming from a white box on the wall by her bed. The angel gave a smile of pure forgiveness. Then, incredibly, the angel opened her mouth and said her name.
e heard her before he could see her. He’d called for a volunteer from the audience and she emerged from the darkness like a woman out of a lake. Tall and slender, she somehow processed smoothly up the stairs toward him. Though she wasn’t especially striking, he noticed right away that she carried herself with pure, complete confidence in her own attractiveness. She was as filled with it as a glass of milk is with white.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to meet—”
“—Margot,” she said, looking at him evenly.
“Margot,” he relayed to the crowd through his microphone. “Margot,” he said to her, “thanks for coming up onstage. We’re going to get to you in a second.” He turned again to face the audience of about sixty middle-level managers, unemployed salespeople, suspicious spouses and a smattering of New Agers. It was midmorning of his daylong seminar called
The Physique of Finance: The Art of Face Reading and Body Language for Professional Advantage
. His name was Lawrence Billings and he was fifty-three years old.
“In the meantime, a little check of our collective humors, everybody. As I already mentioned, we’re gathered today for that most honorable of reasons: because we need a leg up. We’ve gathered because the life we knew as kids is now a big fat mess of dots and signals, and who among us doesn’t feel a little snowed in by that digital blizzard? Remember the good old days of handshake contracts, folks? Remember signing documents with”—he made a slight grimace—“a
? Well, file all that under Extinct, and put it on the shelf by the Dodo, because it’s never coming back!”
He’d started out his adult life as a classics major, had dropped that for the study of psychology, and over the course of it all spent twenty years polishing his innate sensitivities into something sellable.
“But the body,” he said, “doesn’t know a megabyte from a man on the moon. The body is continuing to tell its own simple truth about the person living in it, and if we can read that truth, we’ll have an advantage even in a business climate as rushed, as strange, as flat-out bizarre as ours. Five hundred years from now, when a computer named President Tron lives in the White House, the body will remain the primary point of reference for that which makes us human.”
As a child, he saw things. He had a diviner’s gift for the hidden occult mysteries of ordinary life. Where other children saw an apple in a tree, he beheld a beating heart on a vine, intricately nourished by long, forking veins of green and eating dirt and sunshine to stay alive. Where they glimpsed a house on a patch of lawn, he saw an exploded box of wood and brick holding itself barely upright against the furious downward will of gravity. It was unclear to him why the moon didn’t drop from the sky like a nickel coin or the people of the planet get thrown sideways into space like dust off a spinning top. The boring visible world shouted out loud with inner enigmas and adults were either in a conspiracy to pretend it wasn’t so or were simply dumb.
“As Hamlet put it,” he said resonantly, “ ‘Like a whore, I unpack my heart with words.’ ” But then he immediately added in a normal speaking voice, “And did you know that seventy percent of the impression we make is nonverbal? And that on top of that”—he drew himself up—“the least reliable thing in this world is the information coming out of someone’s mouth?”
Even as a boy, he’d understood the commonness of lying. People did it as naturally as singing. They simply slicked their hair back and belted out howlers, one after another. They held their heads subtly to the side by way of preparation. Then their eyes went all funny, a shot of trembly nerves went through their lips, and they lied. Parents did it to children. Children did it to siblings. Dogs did it to cats and cats to birds. And the TV did it to everybody, loudly, and all day long.
“A perfectionist,” he said to the audience, “has more than two vertical lines between their eyebrows, true or false?”
“True,” someone sang out.
“A big chin?” he asked.
“Gotta always be right.”
“Commitment to family.”
“All right”—he forced a laugh—“who’s been looking at my notes?”
Attendance at his seminars had been declining steadily over the years, and in recent times a cold, whispering little wind of fear had begun to play at his back. Originally, at least a substantial portion of the crowd had been in it for kicks, party favors, recreational fun. But over recent years the weakening economy had salted the room with fiftysomethings whose faces had about them the peculiar bleakness of formerly successful people now out of work and dazed by the recognition that help was probably not on the way.
“How about a gap between the front teeth?” he asked the audience.
There was a silence. Maybe that hadn’t been in the breakfast handout.
“Risk taker, obviously,” he said smoothly into his mike. The headset was slightly overamped; the sound boomed; he’d have to talk to the hotel manager about that.
“And speaking of risk,” he said, “I’d like us to do a bit of live study with our lovely volunteer, Margot.”
Their gazes crossed, and she stared at him a moment, smiling slightly while saying nothing back in return. Usually volunteers were unnaturally eager to please, and nervous, but this woman simply sat there, perfectly composed. Her hair was long and parted in the center, her eyes were strikingly large, green and alight; and she had a sense of calm containment about her, like someone waiting for a train.
“Go on,” she said.
Staring at her, smiling back, he suddenly felt the Bump. The Bump was when the thing, the muscle, moved in the space under his solar plexus. A little sideways skip in his gut that was his special private way of signaling to himself that he was having a reaction, or better a Reaction, writ large. He saw dozens of people up close in a year. Of those, maybe half were women. Of those, only a handful were odd or interesting enough to snap him out of his reflex professionalism long enough to note their singularity. Every once in a while, he’d feel the slight shock of recognition of meeting someone genuinely compelling. The reasons for this were finally mysterious. By long-standing habit, he noted the Bump, and then buried it, deep.
“Please,” he said to the crowd, “direct your attention to the video screens.”
He busied himself for a moment in turning on a video camera, adjusting some small onstage lights, and then centering Margot’s face in the camera. Her image, tremendously enlarged, appeared on the screens: big eyes, strong nose, thick, incurved lips.
“And here it is,” he said, “the centerpiece of creation, the
of human feeling, the, ah, what I’m saying is, human face. Now normally, when we look at the faces of people we know, our looking is smudged all over with how we feel about them, good or bad. But what we have here”—he waved at the gigantic unsmiling face of Margot—“is a visage none of us have ever seen before, and that’s a good place to start. More specifically, let’s start at the top, with her hair.”
He whipped out a small laser pointer and put a magnified dot on her forehead.
“Her hair is beautiful and rich. She looks like an out-of-work Breck girl. But what can we say about her hairline, eh?”
“S’where her hair begins?” a woman’s voice sang out from one of the front rows.
“It’s kinda jagged?” someone else asked.
“Bingo.” He looked up into the darkness. “The hairline is like a graph of life during adolescence.” He traced the laser dot along the ridges of her hairline. “And this jagged edge right here, well, that probably means our friend Margot’s adolescence was less than smooth sailing, am I right?”
Just perceptibly, the corners of her mouth drooped as the shot went home. She looked directly into his eyes.
“You’re right,” she said, speaking intentionally loud enough to be picked up by the overhead mike. “Like many people I had a difficult, um, transition to adulthood.”
He was still looking out into the darkness while savoring the moment when Margot leaned forward and, in a soft voice intended only for the two of them, asked, “Why do you seem to be enjoying this so much?”
After he sent her back to her seat, Lawrence spent the rest of the seminar subtly aware of her in his field of vision. Her tart rejoinder had surprised him, and out beyond the lights, where people were various piles and squibs of gray, he felt his eyesight snagging on the particular shadow he thought she was, and noting her, despite himself.
Smoothly, with a pattern born of long practice, he led them through the Posture Circus, the Eyes Have It, and Mouthing Off. He did Right Face and Left Face, Feet First and All Hands Aboard, broke for lunch, and returned with his afternoon summaries: Bearing and Business, Voice and Value, and Finance and the Face.
He had mostly forgotten about the girl by the time the seminar concluded at five to a round of sustained applause and his appeal—done with fake bashfulness—to buy his book.
Fifteen minutes later, he was onstage packing up his notebooks when he felt her rising up the sides of his eyes. When he turned, she was standing in front of him, and to his surprise, he felt the Bump again; this time it wasn’t in the solar plexus but near the liver.
“Hi there,” he said.
She had small, close-to-the-head ears and an appealing aerodynamic skull that he hadn’t noticed before. Below the level of body language, the actual structure of the body itself was a text, and he believed caches of readable data inhered in the way hips were fitted to pelvises; throats held the weight of the head; fingers tapered and skulls were shaped. A person was an endless manifest written over with the most intimate human information.
“Thank you,” she said, “is what I want to say.”
“Well, you’re most welcome,” he said, this time letting his eyes rest in hers in the “frontal social position.”
“Margot Lassiter,” she said, and held out her hand, flashing large green eyes at him.
“The first name I’d already gotten,” he said, briefly shaking her hand.
He noticed that she was swaying, very slightly, as if hypnotized, on her feet. It was hard for him to square this suddenly bubbly open female with the reserved, suspicious woman he’d seen onstage. As if she’d divined his thoughts, she said, “I know, sorry about that. You probably formed a pretty nasty first impression of me, didn’t you?”
He actually laughed a moment, before catching himself.
“Nasty? Of course not,” he said.
“I would have, in your shoes. But no hard feelings, I hope. You converted me,” she said, and showed small white teeth to him in a smile, “over the course of the day. Can I call you Lawrence?”
She came a little bit closer.
“What it is,” she said, “is I need work.”
“Drills, practice; I need to get up to speed as quickly as I can.”
“Sounds pretty urgent.”
“Well, it is, kind of. I have a business trip to the West Coast planned in a few weeks.”
“Nothing replaces just sitting down and doing it. You’ve got the workbooks.”
“Can I say something? I feel like a diner at a new restaurant with a menu of a thousand choices. It’s all a bit, what, overwhelming.”
“Can be,” he said agreeably.
“And I totally intend,” she said, “to do as you advised, and work on it a little bit each day, but uh . . .”
The slight weaving of her body, so subtle the average person wouldn’t have noticed it, stopped on the spot. She seemed to grow slightly taller. Her voice had dropped at least six microtonalities to what, in his work, he sometimes called the range of the Insinuating General.
“Is it true you teach privates?” she asked.
Afterward—after she’d given him her card, told him she’d try to book an appointment with him via his website and chastely shaken his hand good-bye—Lawrence returned to his packing with a fresh thought in the forefront of his mind: she was a player! She had about her the bright, stylized artificiality of someone keeping up a front while angling for advantage. He shook his head to himself as he slid the microphone into its case. More often lately he was approached after seminars by middle-aged, somewhat defeated and usually out-of-work people who told him gamely he was helping them get “back on track.” They often employed the vocabulary of recovery and had an air of deflated buoyancy about them. But players? People wanting to add this to their arsenal of deception who were already—because she was; he’d deduced this right away—gifted at self-concealment? That was something else entirely.
He finished packing in a hurry. He wanted to get out of the theater, out into the car, and back on the road where he could comfortably review the day. He was tired, as he always was by the end of a daylong seminar. He was lusting for his home, his gin and tonics and those dusk moments passed in his backyard with his wife in happy contemplation of nearby Hawk Mountain, where the rising tide of suburban development had stopped at last, defeated by the steepness of the slope, and left a lovely horn of green like a reference point of the dwindling natural world.
His house was an hour and a half away and, on impulse, he decided to stop for a quick drink first to refresh himself. He phoned his wife to tell her he’d be a little later than expected and then pulled over at one of his favorite roadside haunts, where he took a window seat and ordered his drink. Rush-hour traffic was thickening fast on the interstate, and as someone who spent about 150 days a year on the road, it was hard not to sometimes feel that the entire country was covered by the same whizzing, eye-level belt of noise and busyness.
His drink arrived, and as he sipped it, he took her card out and put it on the table.
Editor at Large
. It then gave the name of a popular magazine. He studied the lettering and the design of the card for clues, contentedly chewing his ice. What was she after, exactly, and why the urgency to “get up to speed” before her “West Coast” trip? He’d already seen the hunger in her features; the chamfered lower lip indicating decisiveness; the slightly wolfish arrangement of the cheekbones and the prominent, take-no-prisoners chin. But it had been the watchfulness behind the eyes and the forced intonations of the voice that had alerted him to something in her that felt like cunning.