On an unusual day during my childhood, my mother showed up at school and asked me questions about myself. I was twelve or so then, and generally I found my own way home: bus, walk, hitchhike, bike, get pushed forward by the shoe soles of others. I hardly recognized her car, waiting there by the flagpole with all the other mothercars until she honked and beckoned me inside.
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," I said at the window.
"Get in, William," she said, pushing open the door. "How was school?"
"Why are you picking me up?"
"Get in," she said, pushing the door open more.
I had, right then, a fast stab of fear in my stomach, like maybe she would kidnap me. Except for the fact that she had birthed me. It was confusing.
I settled into the passenger seat.
"So," she said, as she pulled out of the school lot. "How was your day?"
"Fine," I said.
"How are your friends?"
"Fine," I said.
"That's good. What did you do today?"
"We played war. How are you?"
"You played war on the playground?"
"War is not a game, William. Your uncle—"
"I mean we played tag. I forgot. Sorry."
"Oh. And was that fun?"
"I've always enjoyed tag myself."
"Tag is a classic."
We turned onto the main street, by the shopping area. My mother used to work nearby as an administrative assistant, but she had lost her job the month before. "We have nothing left to administer," they told her.
"And who do you like the best of your friends?" she said.
"Mom," I asked, picking at the seatbelt, "why are you here? It smells like french fries."
"Is there a friend you like more than the others?"
"Not really," I said. "I like them all the same."
She eyed the driver behind us in her rearview mirror, waving as she changed lanes.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Nowhere special. Do you have someplace to be?"
"Do I have someplace to be?"
"Good then. Now why don't you tell me one of your friend's names."
"Why are you so interested all of a sudden?"
"I just want to know one of your friend's names," she said, slowing down at a light.
"Gath," I said.
She smiled straight ahead, but her eyes were wavering.
"What do you mean, sure?"
"That sounds about right," I said. "Can we stop for fries?"
"But is it his real name?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"I don't know their names," I said.
"Sounds good to me," I said.
"You don't know your friends' names?"
I opened the glove box to discover many neat stacks of paper about cars and their insides.
"So what do you call them if their back is to you?"
I thought about it for a second. The car in front of us had a kid facing out in the backseat, waving and waving.
"I call them Hey or You," I said, waving back.
She almost laughed, but it turned into a grunt. The kid turned left. Bye. We drove into the mall and I sat in the parking lot while she went shoe shopping. Half an hour later, she returned, smelling suspiciously of chocolate cake. "The shoes in there," she said, "are so expensive!" She handed over a bread roll. She didn't want to bring me in with her because last time mall security found me quietly moving items in the department store into the wrong departments.
She brought it all up again at the dinner table that night, over spaghetti and red sauce.
"My friends have many names," said my little sister Ginny, promptly. "Angie, Kevette, Marjorie, Orrel—"
"Shut up," I said. "Eat your dinner."
Dad tilted his head down to his plate. He was rarely home before nine, so this was a rare encounter, to be all eating at the same time. It felt like some kind of grand coincidence.
"What's the problem?" he asked.
My mother shook her head. "You don't get it," she said. "He honestly doesn't know his friends'names and these are kids he sees at school every single day."
"I know who they are," I said. "They're my group of friends."
"Do they look different to you?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean can you tell them apart from each other?"
I took a sip of juice to stall.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean—do you know one from the other?"
"Three of them are kind of the same," I said, wiping my mouth. "Then there's the really tall one! He's different."
My mother stared at my father. "Are you hearing this?"
"I'm exhausted," he said, drawing his hand down his face. "I think I single-handledly saved the company today."
"Which company?" asked Ginny.
"The one that sells bottles," he said. "The plastic bottle one."
"Oh!" she said. "My favorite!" She jumped down from her chair and sped into the bathroom, returning with a yellow plastic bottle of shampoo, just to show she could identify his work in the world at large. He mussed her hair. My mother poured herself a little glass of cheap sherry and forwent her spaghetti altogether and who can blame her since it was pretty much just noodles stirred with ketchup.
"So, said my mother. "You can't tell your friends from each other. Can you tell me from your father?"
"Sure, Dad," I said. "Easy."
She coughed mid-sip. Dad was explaining plastic bottle structure to Ginny and didn't hear which is too bad because he, for one, might've laughed.
"Am I Mom?" asked Ginny, pretending to listen to Dad.
"Your uncles," asked Mom.
"I've never met," I said.
"I can mostly tell them apart," I said. "For example, there's the demented one."
"William!" said my mother, clearing her dish. She scraped spaghetti into the trash can.
"There is a lipid in the cellular structure," said Dad.
"We need to take you to the doctor," Mom said. "There's something very wrong with you."
"He is so messed up," murmured Ginny.
"Why'd you pick me up today in the first place?" I asked.
My mother sipped her sherry in the kitchen and sniffed. My father had evaporated from the table by now; I found him reconstituted on the sofa, asleep, with a book on his lap about the history of plastics and the bottle of shampoo nestled against his stomach like a baby.
The next day, my relentless mother:
"Enough kidding around, William," she said. "You're very funny. Now, who, specifically, did you eat lunch with today?"
"All five Gath brothers," I said. "They were at school two days in a row!"
"And which one is the nicest?" she asked.
"None of them is the least bit nice."
She stopped dusting a birdbath made of wire, complete with wire birds and little wire-looped water drops falling from a wire tree.
"Or which Gath brother talks the most?"
"All of them the same."
"No one talks more than the others?"
"No," I said. "All of them at once."
"How can you possibly understand anything if they're all talking at once?"
"Easy," I said, swaying. "You just go with the flow of it."
She shook her rag in the air and a muggy cloud of dust sank to the carpet. "This is rapidly becoming like a bad Abbott and Hardy routine," she said. "Except it isn't funny."
"Why are you so interested all of a sudden?" I said. "Who are your friends? How come I don't know any of their names?"
She closed the shelf and locked it, half-dusted. She always locked it, like I was going to steal a wire birdbath and keep it for my very own. Then she brought out a series of knick-knacks and put them on the coffee table. A stone lizard, an ashtray of rock, a glass princess.
"Nevermind me," she said. "Now which one is glass?"
I pointed to the princess. "I'm not stupid," I said.
"Which one is a lizard?"
I pointed to the ashtray.
"The lizard, William," she said.
I pointed at the ashtray again, with no expression.
She blinked up at me, alarmed, and I held it for a second and then just laughed and laughed until I fell on the floor, laughing. I had to eat dinner that night in my room. Leftover ketchup spaghetti, cold. I have no problem at all identifying objects.
Later that night, when I took out the trash, I found a magazine on top of the pile called Mother Magazine, and to make my sleuthing even easier, it fell right open to a quiz called "How Well do your Know Your Children?" I could see her fresh pencil scrawls all over the page. Questions like: Do you know where your child is after school? She had G: yes, W: no. Do you know the names of your child's friends? G: yes, W: no. Do you know your child's favorite color? G: yellow, W: blue. (Which is wrong. I don't believe in picking a favorite color, it seems like a pretty dumb thing to rank if you ask me.) Do you know any of your child's fears? G: Death, and nuclear war, W: ? Friends? And: Do you know what your child might like to be when he/she grows up? G: vet or singer, W: ? Army?
The magazine had a rating scale too—if you got 85-100 percent of the questions, which she did with Ginny, you were "A Mother to be Reckoned with!" and it said how great you were, how tuned in, how involved. The middle category was something like "Hang in there Mom, you're Trying!" and the final one, which she got for me, was "Mother, May I Suggest some Mothering?"
"This was all for a quiz?" I said to her when I went inside, washing trash juice off my hands, and she finished folding up the newspaper into neat rectangles and said she was sure she had no idea what I was talking about.
The following day, after school, we drove half an hour away to the doctor who was both a specialist in perception and also miraculously covered under our scant insurance. In the waiting room, we sat on different sofas and my mother read the magazine on brides and I read the one with the weekly news report that has a section in the back about how to raise your kid which I find hilarious.
"Robertson!" called out the receptionist. I grabbed a handful of hard candies on my way in.
The doctor's chambers were white-walled and blue trash-canned and orange-chaired. I ate a cinnamon and a peppermint at once. The doctor strode in with coat and clipboard and my mother launched into it right away: "Hello there doctor, thank you so much for seeing us, my son has this funny thing where he has trouble telling the difference between a group and a person."
"Well," chortled the doctor, "isn't that interesting."
Her neck was so long it seemed strange that she was a doctor specializing in perception.
"Let's see what we can discover here," she said. "Hi, William."
She stuck instruments into my eyes. She made me read various letters across the room. She had me close one eye and then the other.
"His vision is fine," she said, after ten minutes.
"Ah," said my mother.
I chomped down on a butterscotch and a little shard of gold sugar flew up and stuck on the doctor's white coat collar.
"Sorry," I said.
She brushed off her coat and put a few slides up on the wall and had me explain them: does the line appear to be wavy? It's really straight. Does the circle above appear to be smaller? It's really the same size as the one below. "But doesn't everyone have these perception problems?" I asked, after identifying both the witch and the young girl in the same drawing of a face. "True," she said. "Sure. But they're fun to look at, aren't they?"
She turned the slide projector off and rummaged in a drawer, returning with a photograph of a group of people.
"Let's try this," she said. "William, who are these people?"
"They're a group of people," I said.
She bobbed her head. "Mmm-hmmm. Okay. And what do these people do?"
"They're all nurses," I said.
I pointed to the bottom of the photo, where it said Nurse Convention on a black plaque in big white letters.
She nodded; her neck was so long that a nod for her took about four seconds to complete.
"And what can you tell me about any of the people in the picture?"
"They're all nurses," I said again.
"And how are they different?"
"They're different heights," I said.
"Okay." She looked in my ear while I was talking.
"My ears feel fine," I said.
"She's checking your balance," whispered my mother, sitting perfectly still in a stiff orange chair in the corner.
The doctor straightened the photo in front of me.
"Now, William," she said. "Can you tell me if any of the nurses are older than the others?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, are there elderly nurses in the photo?"
I peered at it. They all looked pretty old to me. I found one with white hair.
"This one seems old," I said. "He has white hair."
She looked over my shoulder at the photo. "Okay," she said. "Good. And you can tell that it's a man there."
"Yes," I said. "It's an old man nurse, right there."
"And what else can you tell me about them?"
"Nothing much," I said. "A bunch of nurses in a photo. For a convention."
She returned to the drawer and brought out another picture. The second photo was of a bunch of young men in the army.
"Soldiers," I said, pleased with myself. I could tell from the camouflage clothing.
"Okay," she said. "And?"
"And, how are they different?"
"What do you mean?" I asked. "From each other? They're all soldiers."
"For example," she said. "Are some happy?"
I looked at it again. They were moving around, some of them. "Sure," I said. "I suppose some are."
"Can you tell?"
"Not really," I said. "You can't ever tell for sure if someone's happy or not."
She pointed to the corner with her fingertip. "What about this one here?"
"What about him?"
"How is he doing?"
I peered closely at his face. "I don't think he looks too good," I said, "his expression is weird."
The doctor blew her nose into a tissue. "He's getting shot," she said.
"Oh," I said. "Huh. I didn't see that part yet."
"You didn't see his torso?"
"No," I said. "I was looking at his face, like you asked. Now that I look at his body, I can see that he is getting shot."
"And so is he happy?"
"Well, I certainly doubt it," I said. "I'm not a moron."
"And are any of them dead?"
I looked again at the photo. It took me a long time. Several of the soldiers were lying down. One of the ones lying down had his face in the dirt.
"This one could be dead," I said, after about five minutes. "But maybe he's sleeping."
She unscrewed the ear piece from her instrument and took the photo out of my hands. "Thank you, William," she said. "Fine. Let's take a break and try something else for a minute. Of your friends at school, whom do you like the best?"
I could actually hear my mother's jaw stiffen behind me.
"I like them the same," I said.
"Really?" she asked.
"And do you have friends at school?"
"I just said so, didn't I? I have a couple of groups I float between; I'm not really in one main group."
"And can you tell the two groups from each other?"
"Of course," I said, ripping up the corner of the papery doctor visit shirt.
"They sit in different parts of school," I said.
"I see," said the doctor. "And is there a leader in these groups?"
"They change around," I said.
I turned around and glared at my mother. She had her head down, her eyes on the wall, the ceiling, the floor.
"Can we move on, Doc?" I asked. "Any more photos?"
The doctor wrote something on her clipboard and returned to the drawer to take out another picture, this one of a family. I wasn't sure why she had all these group pictures in her drawer, but maybe she saw people like me all the time.
"How about them?" she asked.
"What can you tell me about them?"
"They're all black," I said. "I can see that."
"Can you pick out the grandfather?"
I looked for awhile. No one had white hair. "No."
"Can you pick out the baby?"
I looked for awhile again and finally I found a baby stroller, off in the corner.
"There," I said. "A baby."
"Can you find the young man?"
I stared at it for awhile but I couldn't find the young man any more than I could tell who was the grandfather. And just because someone was old didn't mean he was a grandfather anyway.
"No," I said. "And it's not because I'm racist."
She brought out a similar photo of a family of white people. All I got was the shape of the group made by their heights and the positions of arms and feet.
"This one is sitting," I said, pointing.
The doctor looked at my mother now. They exchanged a meaningful look.
"What?" I said. "Do I have brain damage? What? Who cares who's who? I enjoy the general. What's so wrong with that? Why is this important? If I meet the person and talk to them, I'll know who they are then."
My mother was silent.
The doctor was silent.
"Why did you say that?" asked the doctor, after a minute.
"What do you mean?"
"Why did you just say all that?"
"Because I hate snap judgements," I said.
The doctor folded her arms.
"But how do you know?" she asked.
"How do I know what?"
"How do you know we're making snap judgements?"
I unwrapped another candy. Green peppermint. "No reason," I said. "My mother gave you a look."
Now the doctor leaned against the wall.
"So you could see her look?"
"What do you mean?" I asked. "Didn't she give you a look?"
"Yes," Mom said. "I gave her a look."
"But you could see your mother's look," said the doctor. "Why?"
"You can't see an old man. You can't see a soldier getting shot."
"I know my mother's face."
"Can you see it now?"
I looked over. Truth was, I couldn't really see her face. I could see big red lips because she was wearing lipstick because she likes to look nice for doctors.
"Make a face, Mrs. Robertson," the doctor said.
She did something. What, I couldn't tell.
"Can't tell," I said, sucking on the candy.
"But you could tell the earlier look," said the doctor.
"Just sometimes," I said. "Are we done?"
"Do you see me as a group?" asked the doctor then, in an all-too-friendly voice.
"I am not retarded," I said, pulling my shirt back over my head. "I can see that you are one person, and that you have a ridiculously long neck."
"William!" barked my mother.
"William, may I speak to your mother alone for a moment?" the doctor asked.
I stormed out. I emptied the entire lobby candy jar into my pockets and left the building. There was a candle shop next door so I went in there and smelled wax for awhile; the one that said it smelled like chocolate was wildly misleading. I have an excellent sense of smell. On the street I tried to look at all the people walking by but they just looked like walking people to me. I didn't see why I needed to read their faces. Wasn't there enough complication in the world already besides having to take in the overload of details and universes in every single person's fucking face?
The drive home was mostly silent. My mother didn't wave at the drivers when she changed lanes, which is unlike her. In general, she's at her best in the world with strangers, and gets great reassurance from a wave or a nod between cars. But on this drive home she changed lanes on her own without acknowledgement of anyone and was quiet until we pulled into the driveway.
"I just don't understand," is all she said then.
My dad walked in from work late that night, as usual, and found some frozen pizza thawing in the refrigerator by accident. It had never been cooked but he didn't bother to heat it up and just ate it cold. "Cold pizza," he said, smiling at me, as little flecks of cheese fell to the floor. "It's not the same," I told him. When he was done, my mother asked if she could speak to him in the other room. Ginny was playing hospital with her torn stuffed animals, and I skulked around their door as they settled in the bedroom and I heard her whisper to my dad that we went today to the doctor who did lots of tests and was very kind and professional and William has a real problem and the doctor diagnosed him with facial illiteracy.
"Wait, what?" I said from the hallway. I leaned in the doorframe. "She said what?"
My mother's eyes were enormous. Okay, I could see them. My mom only, sometimes. My father's hair was a mess from exhaustive mussing and he said: "Facial illiteracy? What the hell is that?"
"He cannot read a face," said my mother, wincing. "He cannot recognize facial, or for that matter, bodily signals. He can't read people at all. And Stan," she said, "it's true."
"Oh whatever," I said, kicking the door. "I bet the doctor made that name up right on the spot."
"Go to bed, William."
"It's nine o'clock."
"You're a growing boy. Go to bed."
"So what does it mean," asked my father.
"I don't know," she said. "He may have to take special classes. On recognition. Of faces and people. Go to bed, William!"
I stayed by the door until she came and closed it on me.
Shoving my ear against the wood, I heard my father's tones of mild protest and my mother's rising pierce. "Soldiers!" she was saying. "All dead! He thought they were happy!"
At the TV, I found Ginny surrounded by her now mended stuffed toys, watching the sitcom about the people who work at the pet store and act like animals. She likes the boss who talks like a monkey. I tried to look at each actor's individual face but all I saw were eyebrows and teeth. No one emerged from the parental bedroom for over an hour, and I fell asleep on the couch. That's where I woke up with the first light of morning, covered with stuffed bears just barely held together by clusters of staples and tape.
(There was a moment, once. I was eating dinner with Mom, and Dad was at work late, and Ginny was at a friend's house learning fractions. I barely remember this; it's sort of made-up if you want to know the truth. But we were eating spaghetti and cottage cheese, and Mom looked at me, and then all of sudden it was like her face melted; the lines around her eyes all pointed down, arrows down her face to the lines around her mouth which pointed down, and then her chin caught it all like a net, trapping all the down arrows and feeding them back into her jaw and lower lip which drooped and sank from the weight.
She took a sip of her water.
"Mom, you okay?" I asked.
"Sure," she said. "Why?")
For about a month, I went to classes across town taught by the long-necked doctor. They involved me and her in a dark viewing room, looking at huge slides of babies' faces crying and laughing, and I had to tell her which was which. The doctor was stupid because she kept using the same set of slides, and each time she'd tell me which was which, not realizing that every slide had a small gold number embossed in the corner. I just made notes on my leg: 14 is laughing, 13 is sneezing, 12 is crying, 11 is sleeping, etc. Within two weeks, I got eight out of ten on the test (I missed two on purpose) and she seemed very pleased with both of us. "Let's see how you do for now," she said, and she let me have my Saturday mornings back, which I used to climb roofs and mess with people's TV antennae.
(I was walking to school with Ginny. She was telling me about her verb project, where she is gathering underappreciated verbs, and putting them to use. "Look, I'm sauntering to school," she said, doing a little trick with her feet. She tilted her head to the side for a second, and she's a few years younger than me and when she squinted, putting her lips to one side, for a second I thought she looked hot. I'm making this up. She's nine. She crossed the street, and yelled, "Behold you later!" over her shoulder.)
My mother did not pick me up from school again. She was back pounding the streets, looking for a job. She did interrogate me several times at the kitchen table when we were home at the same time, but by now I'd learned my lesson. "His name's John Gath," I said to her, as I ate my fifth piece of toast. "He talks the most of anyone, and he is the leader of the group. I like him the best, except on the days when he's in a bad mood."
"John?" she said.
"John," I said, chewing the crust. "And his brothers are George and Paul, and his cousins are Rocky and Jo-Jo."
"And who talks the least?" she asked, brushing ants into the trashcan. I watched them climb out.
"Jo-Jo," I said. "Is a quiet sort. By the way, my favorite color is blue."
"Blue," she sighed, leaning back on the counter. "That's a good one. Have you done your homework?"
"All done," I said. "Did you get a job?"
"Soon," she said.
(We were smoking at the wall at recess, and one of the Gaths handed me a bag of barbecue chips and when I took it, he had this look in his eye. Glinty. Looking right at me. "What?" I said. "What?" he said.)
You know what I like to look at? The birdbaths, locked up. The stuffed bear stuck together with staples and tape. The TV. The refrigerator. I like the car. The changing weather. The taste of wrong-color peppermints. The doctor's neck.
(There's a photo of the Robertson family in a blue wooden frame that sits on top of the TV that we got done at the department store's photo department. I try to focus my attention on the TV, but sometimes I glance up by accident. Mostly I just see hair and all of us in our nice shirts and I remember the dick photographer who made us say "buttercream pie," but once in awhile, I look up and it's a flash like the photograph is screaming and everything is imprinted there, everything. Like the shape of my mother's jaw might as well bleed out the word disappointment and my dad's eyes are way far back and blank in his head and Ginny smiles too big like she's pouring grout on the world and somebody's flattened me.
One night, Mom held it up during commercials and said, "I think this is my favorite picture of us yet," because she likes how the angle doesn't show her double chin and she likes to see Ginny smiling with her pretty teeth and Dad with his hair just cut, and how for once I wasn't scowling at the camera.
"Look, William, how handsome you are when you're not being difficult," she said.
I shrugged at her. "Can't see it," I said. "Sorry.")
"Faces" first appeared in #191 of The Paris Review, and was a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award finalist. Republished with permission.