Authors: Robert Cormier
The gun is like a tumor on my thigh as I walk through the morning streets against the wind that never dies down. April sunlight stings my eyes but the wind dissipates its heat, blustering against store windows and kicking debris into the gutters.
At Ninth and Spruce, I pause and look up at the three-decker and the windows of the second floor, where Larry LaSalle can be found at last. Does he suspect my presence here on the street? Does he have a premonition that he has only a few minutes left to live?
I am calm. My heartbeat is normal. What’s one more death after the others in the villages and fields of France? The innocent faces of the two young Germans appear in my mind. But Larry LaSalle is not innocent.
AFTER THE FIRST DEATH
BEYOND THE CHOCOLATE WAR
THE BUMBLEBEE FLIES ANYWAY
THE CHOCOLATE WAR
EIGHT PLUS ONE
I AM THE CHEESE
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
THE RAG AND BONE SHOP
TUNES FOR BEARS TO DANCE TO
WE ALL FALL DOWN
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Copyright © 1998 by Robert Cormier
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Reprinted by arrangement with Delacorte Press
To George Nicholson and Craig Virden
Show me a hero and I will
write you a tragedy.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
y name is Francis Joseph Cassavant and I have just returned to Frenchtown in Monument and the war is over and I have no face.
Oh, I have eyes because I can see and eardrums because I can hear but no ears to speak of, just bits of dangling flesh. But that’s fine, like Dr. Abrams says, because it’s sight and hearing that count and I
was not handsome to begin with. He was joking, of course. He was always trying to make me laugh.
If anything bothers me, it’s my nose. Or rather, the absence of my nose. My nostrils are like two small caves and they sometimes get blocked and I have to breathe through my mouth. This dries up my throat and makes it hard for me to swallow. I also become hoarse and cough a lot. My teeth are gone but my jaw is intact and my gums are firm, which makes it possible for me to wear dentures. In the past few weeks, my gums began to shrink, however, and the dentures have become loose and they click when I talk and slip around inside my mouth.
I have no eyebrows, but eyebrows are minor, really. I do have cheeks. Sort of. I mean, the skin that forms my cheeks was grafted from my thighs and has taken a long time to heal. My thighs sting when my pants rub against them. Dr. Abrams says that all my skin will heal in time and my cheeks will someday be as smooth as a baby’s arse. That’s the way he pronounced it: arse. In the meantime, he said, don’t expect anybody to select you for a dance when it’s Girls’ Choice at the canteen.
Don’t take him wrong, please.
He has a great sense of humor and has been trying to get me to develop one.
I have been trying to do just that.
But not having much success.
• • •
I wear a scarf that covers the lower part of my face. The scarf is white and silk like the aviators wore in their airplanes during the First World War over the battlefields and trenches of Europe. I like to think that it flows behind me in the wind when I walk but I guess it doesn’t.
There’s a Red Sox cap on my head and I tilt the cap forward so that the visor keeps the upper part of my face in shadow. I walk with my head down as if I have lost money on the sidewalk and am looking for it.
I keep a bandage on the space where my nose used to be. The bandage reaches the back of my head and is kept in place with a safety pin.
There are problems, of course.
My nose, or I should say my caves, run a lot. I don’t know why this should happen and even the doctors can’t figure it out but it’s like I have a cold that never goes away. The bandage gets wet and I have to change it often and it’s hard closing the safety pin at the back of my head.
I am wearing my old army fatigue jacket.
So, I am well covered up, face and body, although I don’t know what I am going to do when
summer comes and the weather gets hot. Right now, it’s March, cold and rainy, and I will worry about summer when it gets here and if I am still around.
Anyway, this gives you an idea of what I look like when I walk down the street. People glance at me in surprise and look away quickly or cross the street when they see me coming.
I don’t blame them.
• • •
I have plenty of money.
I received all this back pay when I was discharged from Fort Delta. The back pay accumulated during the time I spent in battle in France, and then in the hospitals, first in France, then in England.
My money is in cash. Hundred-dollar bills and twenties and tens. The smaller bills I keep in my wallet but the rest of the money is stashed in my duffel bag, which is always with me, slung over my shoulder. I am like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, my face like a gargoyle and the duffel bag like a lump on my back.
I am staying in the attic tenement in Mrs. Belander’s three-decker on Fourth Street. She finally answered the door after I had been knocking for a while, and regarded me with suspicion, not recognizing me. This was the proof that the scarf and the bandage were working in two ways: not only to hide
the ugliness of what used to be my face but to hide my identity.
As her small black eyes inspected me from head to toe, I said: “Hello, Mrs. Belander.” A further test.
She didn’t respond to my greeting and I realized that she didn’t recognize my voice, either. My larynx, which Dr. Abrams called my organ of voice, had also been damaged by the grenade and although I can speak, my voice is much lower now and hoarse, as if I have a permanent sore throat.
I remembered what Enrico Rucelli in the last hospital had said about how money talks and I began to draw out my wallet when she said:
I nodded, and her face softened:
I followed her up the four flights of stairs, the blue veins in her legs bulging like worms beneath her skin.
The tenement is small, with low slanted ceilings. Two rooms, kitchen and bedroom. The bed, only a cot, really. But everything very neat, windows sparkling, the floor gleaming with wax, the black stove shining with polish.
I glanced out the kitchen window at the steeples of St. Jude’s Church. Craning my neck, I caught a glimpse, between the three-deckers of the neighborhood, of the slanted roof of the Wreck Center. I
ought of Nicole Renard, realizing I had not thought of her for, oh, maybe two hours.
I turned to find Mrs. Belander with her hand out, pink palm turned upward.
“In advance,” she said.
She was always generous when I did her errands, and her tips paid for my ten-cent movie tickets at the Plymouth on Saturday afternoons. She baked me a cake for my thirteenth birthday. That was five years ago and it seems like a very long time. Anyway, I paid her a month’s rent and she wrote out a receipt on the kitchen table. The table was covered with a red-and-white-checkered oilcloth like the ones we had at home until the bad times arrived. My caves moistened and I groped for my handkerchief.
She handed me the receipt. It read
in her shaky handwriting where my name should have been.
That was fine with me. At that moment I knew that I was really anonymous, that I wasn’t Francis Joseph Cassavant anymore but a tenant in Frenchtown.
“Thank you, Mrs. Belander.” Testing again.
“You know my name,” she said, responding this time. Not a question but a statement, suspicion returning to her eyes.
I thought quickly.
“On the mailbox downstairs,” I answered, guessing that her name was there. But a good guess, as she nodded, satisfied.
“Stop later, my place,” she said, her Canadian accent making the words sing. “I make you sturdy soup to help your cold …”
After she left, I went to the window and looked at the falling rain outside. I was home again in Frenchtown. I thought of the gun hidden away in my duffel bag, and knew that my mission was about to begin.
• • •
Later, I light a candle in St. Jude’s Church.
The smell of burning wax and the fragrance of old incense—the odors of forgiveness—fill the church. I remember the days I served as an altar boy for Father Balthazar and the Latin responses I had trouble memorizing.
I kneel at the communion rail and say my prayers.
I pray for Enrico and hope that he will finally go home and adjust to his condition, although those are terrible words:
. Enrico is now without his legs and is also missing his left arm. “Thank Christ I’m right-handed,” he once said, but I don’t think he was really thanking Christ.
I also pray for the souls of my mother and father.
My mother died when I was six, giving birth to my brother, Raymond, who lived only five and a half hours. My father died five years ago of a heart attack in the rub room of the Monument Comb Shop, although I always felt he really died with my mother all those years before. I offer up prayers, too, for my uncle Louis, who gave me a place to live until I joined the army.
I pray, of course, for Nicole Renard, wherever she may be.
And finally, I pray for Larry LaSalle.
It’s hard for me to pray for him and I always hesitate before I can bring myself to say that prayer. Then I think again of what Sister Gertrude taught us in the third grade, words that she said came from the mouth of Jesus. Pray for your enemies, for those who have done you harm. It is easy to pray for those you love, she said. But it counts more to pray for those who don’t love you, that you don’t love.
So I offer up an Our Father and Hail Mary and Glory Be for Larry LaSalle. Then I am filled with guilt and shame, knowing that I have just prayed for the man I am going to kill.
• • •
Before going to bed, I stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom.
My hair is a mess as usual, thin in some spots,
thick in others. For some reason, my hair began to fall out in clumps my first few days in the hospital in France and it has grown back the same way.
I apply Vaseline to my cheeks.
I make myself look at my caves and the way the shape of my mouth has changed because of the dentures. I roll the dentures around in my mouth and remember what Dr. Abrams said, that I should have a better-fitting pair made in a few months when my gums stop shrinking. He also gave me his address in Kansas City, where he will be in practice when he returns from the war. “Great strides have been made in cosmetic surgery, Francis,” he said. “One of the few benefits of the war. Look me up when you’ve a mind to.” He was tall and looked like Abraham Lincoln. And should practice his cosmetic surgery on himself, Enrico said.