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sean croft

New Fiction


by Sean Croft

      You can’t smile. You grimace. Family photos, yearbooks, your wedding day. Grimaces. When your daughter shows you her drawings. When someone tells a dirty joke. When someone tells a clean joke. Your laugh warmly. It’s a nice, pleasant, soothing laugh, but is contorted in sentiment by your eyes—your worried and worrying eyes. Hideous lines sear your wrinkling forehead, crawling around an upside down, barely equilateral triangle of tight lips, barely dimplesque crevices in the most unlikely of places. Your eyebrows flexed, the outside ends pulled further outward, the insides, inward toward for your nose. Your teeth. Good teeth. Braces fixed your teeth. They couldn’t fix your grimace. Neither could seminars on self-confidence, stress-relief, nor happiness. Neither could Clonidine nor antispasmodics. Neither pilotis, weightlifting, Swedish massage, acupuncture, nor hamams. Nor marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, nor herbal infusions. A new haircut. Tape. Behavioral therapy. Psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis. Neurologists. Myologists. MRI’s of the seventh cranial nerve. Music therapy. Helping people. Ignoring it. Fighting back. Googling “how stop grimacing”.
      Sometimes it crops up randomly. Mild stress. Low stress. No stress. You try to to avoid making any facial expressions, and thus your apparent lack of courtesy mars you as a seemingly bored or grumpy oddball. Your high school councilor, career councilors, teachers, bosses, friends, acquaintances, and strangers have all told you that you need to smile more often “so you don’t come off as so unapproachable”. And then you do, and they frown. When someone tells a story, you concentrate intently on trying to appear interested and surprised at the right moments, and looking away at the same time to not appear too intense, but usually people get so distracted by you that they cut their stories short or forget what they were talking about and ask if you’re ok, if you wouldn’t like some water or to lay down or something.
      The last time you were stopped for a speeding ticket, the policeman kept his hand on his gun.
      Your wife says she doesn’t notice. She said even if you were missing your jaw she’d still love you. Your daughter doesn’t seem to mind. You wonder if that will have repercussions. Perhaps she will not be able to differentiate between smiles, grimaces, and perfectly neutral faces. Perhaps she does notice it. Perhaps her mother has explained the situation to her and told her to ignore it. Perhaps your daughter has nightmares. The Grimace Reaper. The Brothers Grimace. The Grimace reality. Grimace death.
      You love dogs, but they often bark at you.
      Your mother told you it wasn’t until your third birthday party that your hitherto perfectly normal, even at times excessively effusive smile inexplicably warped. The camera shutter opened and closed, leaving left your father, your mother, and you—intense, anarchic muscular activity around your mouth, your eyes too wide, too intense, like you’d be placed in front of a firing squad. The photographer noted the abnormality by pitching his camera to the floor as if it’d become a hairy, toothy, man-eating tumor. As you had found the photographer’s gaffe rather funny, your parents were soon apprised of the situation.
      Your father tried to work with you. After all, he who’s face gives no light will never be a star. He tried to negotiate a photo smile, grappling with whatever secret anger, lust or pain you had in you, his index fingers following an upside arc from one corner of his mouth to the other, like a pendulum swinging. Just do this—open-mouthed, then close-mouthed. A door opening and closing. Evidently, when you tried with a closed mouth, you looked less murderous and more like you were going to have a very childish, but nonetheless deeply unsettling nervous breakdown. You tried for hours with him, gymnastics of the body to preserve the soul. You struggled to conform, but as soon as his hands were lifted, your face took its own shape. And after spending the afternoon sitting in a chair facing him, drowsy numbness taking hold as he tried to enforce the appearance of both happiness and consciousness on you, your mother finally came, put her hand on his shoulder, and took you to bed.
      One day, your mother picked you up from school and you had a folded piece of paper in your hand. You said it was something you’d made. She asked you what it was, but you wouldn’t show her. You were keeping it from her, certain of some great impending demonstration of her pride. Certain. Show me what you got there, she said glancing over as she drove. You built the suspense, pretending to open it but then snapping it closed. Holding it out, then snatching it back back to your chest. She was rapt. What could it be? What marvel had her son accomplished in the fields of science, mathematics, history, or English? And when neither of you could bear the strain of the suspense any longer, you pulled it wide open—your father, your mother, and you in watercolor, three stick figures, all with perfectly precise circumscribed orange peel smiles, but beyond that piece of paper was the reality, remarkably more intense than anything yet. Your joy was evident, its intensity translated from what should have been a wide, buck-toothed grin, into the most joyfully bloodthirsty Edward Hyde sneer imaginable, so grotesque she nearly had a car accident—nearly ran over cub scout troupe and a crossing guard, the guard’s mortified aspect infinitely less horrendous than the disfigurement she’d just witnessed.
      Your parents spoke to your elementary school’s speech therapist. She took you on for a while, but didn’t really know what to do with you. You all played games and took turns pronouncing vowels and consonants, some facial exercises, but nothing would make any difference. For a while, you developed a lisp. Your parents couldn’t have a child that both grimaced and lisped, so they pulled you out.
      At times, it seemed like a tic, a facial stutter. Recounting your day—you’d scored a goal at recess—there it was, painfully manifest, because it wasn’t just a flash. You sustained it for a couple seconds like you were trying to communicate some ferocious terror, when in reality you only attempting some humble joy or pride. Often it came out of nowhere, to the point where, it seemed your neutrality signaled perpetual repression. Your parents thought it might be stress, some extreme form of stress they couldn’t get at, something that was bothering you. They prodded you for answers ever so delicately, not wanting to give you a complex about your complex, but got nowhere.
      So they took you to a psychologist, but didn’t call him so that you wouldn’t feel ashamed. He was “man with a doctorate in the brain you could talk to”. After the first session, your mother said, you came out with a lollypop he’d given you, and of course there it was, that barbaric deformation. And while you stood there, everyone trying to ignore the satanic looking little boy with the lollypop, the psychologist said something about facial feedback theory and keeping you away from mirrors for the time being. He also said that smiling is essential to happiness, so, on the one hand, if what you were doing was in fact an attempt at a smile, your parents should encourage you, and not indicate in any way that what you were doing was “ugly, undesirable, or bad”. However, if what you were doing was not in fact smiling (his opinion), then they should by all means prevent you from making what he termed a “frown”, and instead practice smiling through daily exercises—in other words your parents were to continue what your father had originally done that first day—use their fingers to force a smile on you, and perhaps after you started to get the hang of it, introduce a mirror to reinforce what your body should be doing but what your brain wasn’t allowing.
      You never wanted to buy a yearbook. Neither did your parents. The poor photographers, your mother said smiling. In kindergarden the principle called her to complain that, instead of smiling, you were threatening the photographer with your face. Your mother had to send notes with you after that.
      “Please excuse my child from smiling as he suffers from a facial handicap.
      This is not a joke.
      Thank you.
      PS His sneer is by no means personal.”
      She asked if you remember that. She has asked if you ever read the notes. She reminded you that she put them in a sealed envelope and told you not to open them. They wanted to protect you. Now you’re grown up. Now you understand. You have thicker skin and have run through the explanations and answered the questions a million times. What’s more, there’s Photoshop.
      Your mother asked you if you remember your high school graduation trip to Paris. You saw everything, they took a few shots of you when you weren’t looking, in front of the Eiffel Tower, in front of the Triumph Arch, by the Seine River where you had a picnic. You looked so beautiful—so handsome when your face was relaxed, like any other boy your age. You were a beautiful boy—angelic, your mother said, as long as you weren’t smiling.
      She knew before you even got to the Louvre. She had a mother’s instinct. Your father had even sarcastically suggested it in a whisper, as a joke, you know, the contrast and all. So she walked quickly ahead to thwart the her own premonition, marching through the half-Japanese crowd, and she focused, that “unfathomable expression”, a reminder for the artist of his mother in a moment of condescension, the head upon which all the ends of the world are come, all the thoughts and experience of the world etched and molded there—the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the Middle Age, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias, older than the rocks among which she sits, dead many times, a diver in deeps seas, their fallen day about her, a trafficker for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it was molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands—and you sprung up like a chipmunk, just like a chipmunk, she said—a weird, oversexed, deranged chipmunk. And she said they had to develop it. Once she saw it, she considered burning it, but once your father had it, he couldn’t let go. It was ridiculous, of course, but he said it was also the best photo he had ever seen, profoundly comic and profoundly tragic, the question of who presented the greater enigma unanswerable. They kept it in a drawer, and every once in a while, took it out to see if perhaps it had changed.
      And now you are in front of a crowd, everyone in black. A January morning. All those eyes are dead set on you, and you do not want to fuck it up, because this is, after all, your mother’s funeral, the funeral of the woman who gave birth to you, raised you, put up with you. And so you are praying, though your ideas of God are hazy to say the least. You pray that you do not grimace today, because there are relatives out there you’ve never met before—old friends of your mother’s who have never met you, and you do not want them to remember your mother’s funeral and all that your mother was by your problem. And so you must not smile, which is not the most difficult thing in the world, considering you are morning the death of your mother. But any stray joke, any gratitude, could ruin it all.
      You deliver your speech—the speech you have practiced in front of the mirror, your physical composure more important than the words themselves. You are not a poet, after all, and so you have kept it short and to the point, but also topical. You reference the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady. It is a smidgeon literary. You quote Iago and Lady McBeth. You even throw in a joke. The joke is really funny, one your wife told you, and this is the part you have had to practice in particular. Why are you throwing in a joke? You don’t know exactly. It might have something to do with testing yourself. And would it really be so bad if you grimaced in the end? It is a funeral after all. It might be thought endearingly appropriate, though repulsive.
      And so you get to the joke part, and you deliver it, and your face is doing something, you hear the attack of your audience’s laugh, its sustain, its release, but, soon after, you realize it must be happening because the quiet disturbance devolves a bit into what sound like quiet choking and disapproving throat clearing. But you continue. It’s a thirty minute speech structurally modeled off of Demosthenes “Third Phillip”, borrowing heavily from Churchill’s eulogy of King George VI while touching on a discussion of change and permanence in Heraclitus and Parmenides. You want to give your mother a proper send off. You are about a quarter of the way through, and you see your father in the audience. His head is in his two hand and it is shaking. Is he so grief-stricken? Is your speech that good? Earlier, he’d seemed so composed. Or is it the grimace? Your death scowl. But you continue on, cheerful and undaunted. Your mother demands it.
      Your daughter delivers you a note at the podium. It’s from your wife. It says, “you are smiling (pleasantly)”. You touch your mouth and indeed you are. You must have been smiling since the joke, far too long to be appropriate—who knows, maybe fifteen minutes of smiling on a funeral podium—a bit awkward. Very awkward. Terrible. You’ve lost by winning—lost all control, your face its own animal. Either way your eulogy, your thirty to forty-five minute panegyric, has been undermined—ironic now, like a sarcastic whistle and jig on your mother’s grave. Yet you are absolutely sincere. In spite of whatever small private jokes she may have shared with your father, whatever sarcastic comments, she bore your disfigurements with a kind of valor. But now her funeral and perhaps by extension her life will be marred by that son she somehow gave a complex to, and who at the last, finally relieved of all the pressure she had put on him, pranced and pirouetted on her grave by flipping that complex upside down. And so you abandon the more or less flawless speech you have laboriously composed over the span of several years in anticipation of her passing, and you just start talking. You explain your handicap, how you have been hounded by it your whole life, and how, although it has now been inverted, in these circumstances, it remains tantamount to your most obscene grimaces during the best of occasions. You tell them how your whole life you have feared your own happiness. You say how your mother tried to help you through with her sense of humor. She told you how some people even manage to retain senses of humor in or horrible situations—occupations, even genocides, and that can keep them from withering inside. And she tried to make you stronger and happier by teaching you to laugh at yourself, but unfortunately, she failed. For you, it was too nasty, too harrowing. You were plagued by its seriousness, and humor only drove you down further into hopeless gravity. She had grit you didn’t possess, though you wished you had. The knowledge that visually, your laugh would always be a hollow, bitter, self-scourging cackle, strangled it in your throat. But now, the thought strikes you as you say it, you think you understand what is so funny, so you laugh.

Sean has been living and teaching English at an agricultural school in Mozambique for the past two years, much of that experience seriously ridiculous and ridiculously serious. Before moving to Mozambique, he lived in Paris and taught primarily at IBM. One of his short stories has appeared at nth position. He is currently working on a novel.

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