Many Faced God – David Exumé ’19

In the darkness, the rain washed away Shayaa’s features until he was smooth. The water eroded the tip of his nose, sanded down his cheekbones. Each droplet popped a blackhead with pinpoint precision and pounded his Adam’s apple until it turned concave. His thick eyebrows slid off and gathered in pools on either side of his brown head. Nappy curls disintegrated in the hiss of the rainfall. His eyeballs melted and his eyelids collapsed into the empty sockets. When the water droplets slid smoothly, with no crevices to collect in, the papier-mache sculpture of his skull was almost the only thing that was left — that, and his full, dirt brown lips.

“Even the lips?” A voice echoed in the lightlessness.

“Yeah.” He would have said Yes, please, but he had no teeth to enunciate the S. Relief washed over Shayaa like the rain when he realized he could hardly say his own name.

“Then let it be so.” And in the darkness a hand that held every hand in the world settled upon the gash in his smooth features. Its palm was made of many palms; its fingers were made of little fingers that wriggled on his skin like the tiny legs of a centipede.

The hand of the Manyfacedgod wiped away Shayaa’s lips in one swipe, like dust off a countertop. Unguarded, his mouth began to fill with water, dissolving his tongue and filling in his empty gum sockets.

“I hope this is what you wanted,” said the Manyfacedgod. Eyeless and featureless, Shayaa had the unscratchable itch to smile.

  • • •

It was approaching three o’clock in the afternoon as the girl in the charter high school sweatshirt slid a rain-soaked $100 bill across the counter. Joe’s New Haven Pizzeria usually had more high school students packed within its exposed brick walls on weekday afternoons, but on that day the expensive Edison light bulbs shone down warm orange lights on empty tables.

“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t have any smaller bills.”

“Hey, it’s no problem.” Shayaa took the $100 bill from behind the register and punched in an order for two slices of pizza classico. The drawer sprang open and Shayaa withdrew the $96.07 in change. He placed it on top of the bag of cheese slices and slid the bundle across the counter.

“Have a nice day. Thanks for coming in!” As part of his uniform, along with his work-issued JOE’S t-shirt and work-issued apron, Shayaa flashed her his work-issued smile. The girl took the pizza and the money, and without so much as a glance at the glass cup for tips, turned and walked out of the pizzeria into the rain.

“Just because she looks like that corporate chick from Westworld, she thinks she can just not tip.” A pair of yellow-painted lips poked out from the window to the servery. Marjorie, the line cook, had a face that many said was hard to place. With her thick eyebrows and hazelnut skin, most people mistook her for being Hispanic, or tired, or angry. But on the bus ride from their apartment (or, rather, Marjorie’s apartment, where Shayaa was staying) to Joe’s that morning, she informed Shayaa that she chose yellow lipstick to highlight her status as a Filipina with a healthy zest for life.

“Haven’t seen it,” Shayaa replied.

“Tessa Thompson? Dear White People? Looks like Rihanna?”

“I wasn’t really looking at her face.”

“…You are a creep.”

“That is not what I meant.”

Indeed, he was more familiar with the marble countertop than the customers that passed on the other side. The rest of the afternoon, up until closing time, was a slideshow of hands sliding from the register to the counter. Shayaa saw glimpses of business-attire leather belts, the soft tucks of t-shirts into belly-button-high blue jeans. Rolexes hung around wrists. Copper bangles hung dangerously from the arms of socialites. One torso and set of hands blended into the next. Each Hi, welcome to Joe’s! and Have a nice day! Thanks for coming in! held the same balance of enthusiasm, warmth, and concern that took Shayaa one shift to learn but one year to master. Soon, it felt like his hands weren’t even his. This was Shayaa’s favorite part of the job — an IMAX projection of Joe’s New Haven Pizzeria that screened from 10 AM to 10 PM on weekdays. He sat back, shut off his brain, and watched the show until closing time.

“You closing again, Shayaa? You’ve done this for a week!”

Shayaa had locked the door behind the last customer, stacked all the chairs on top of the tables, and was mopping the hardwood floors by the time Marjorie emerged from the dishwashing area. Baffled, she checked the register — all the money had been counted and stored away. The cannolis and tiramisu cups had been moved into the refrigerator. All the surfaces were disinfected. The pizzeria was more sterile than a hospital.

Marjorie scrunched her brow as she read every checked-off task on the Closing To-Do list. The only task left was to mop up the seating area.

“I went to Joanne’s office downstairs and I was like, ‘Hey boss, is there anything I need to do to close up?’ And she just said, ‘Oh yeah. No, Shayaa’s probably got it.’ She’d, like, give you the keys to lock this place up, if she could. But there’s no way you did this all by yourself.”
Shayaa continued to paint long mop strokes of Pine Sol across the restaurant floor. “It’s not that hard. I just get started early on some stuff before we close, and then I finish up after everyone leaves.”

“Did you take your dinner break?” Marjorie swung her limbs idly, moving in small circles.

“Got it in a box to take home. You want some? It’s pesto linguine.”

“I know, Shayaa. I’m-a the line cook. I make-a the pasta.”

The bad Super Mario impression and impeccably-timed thumb-and-forefinger circle wasn’t even enough to get Shayaa to exhale particularly loudly.

“Really? Nothing?” Marjorie threw her hands and the list up in frustration and ambled into the back room. “You’ve been so boring recently, Shayaa!”

Shayaa looked down at the Pine Sol-soaked floor. It was so spotless that he could look down and see his unflattering, chin-up reflection beaming at him.

“You’re doing very well, child!” his reflection said. “You hardly needed my help to get through the day this time.”

Shayaa just heaved a long sigh through his nose, having officially retired his customer service face for the day. He dipped his mop back in the bucket, plopped it onto the Manyfacedgod in the Pine Sol, and wiped them away. It was a good day that day, unlike the other days where Shayaa would spend five minutes in the pizza store bathroom as the Manyfacedgod puppeteered the corners of his mouth into a smile and adjusted his eyelids to make him appear happy, alert, but not too alert. It was usually enough to get him through his shift. On this particular day, though, Shayaa wanted to practice his own customer service face, just to see if he was still able to look okay. He found out that he could, but it made him very, very tired.

After the whole floor was left lemon-fresh and the store lights were off behind locked doors, Marjorie and Shayaa stood outside on the damp suburban street at the bus station. They caught the last 30S of the night, which took them from coffee shops and consignment stores to late-night liquor stores locked behind metal bars. Shayaa stared out the window; his reflection had its back to him as it stared at the grassy lawns turning into concrete. They were leaving the place the charter school kids went to for lunch and heading where their parents told them not to go.

“This city has more than once face as well,” the Manyfacedgod remarked. “Does that make you feel better?”

“No,” Shayaa replied.

“Did you say something, Shayaa?” Marjorie was sitting on the aisle-side of the two-seater with her backpack tucked under her chin. Shayaa turned to her, shook his head and waved it off. His reflection expertly snapped back to normal before Marjorie had turned around.

“You gonna shave before the wake tomorrow?” she asked. Shayaa scratched the curly black hairs that grew in patches under his cheekbones, nose, and jaw — the ones that curled up underneath his skin and caused bumps. They failed to hide the slight paunch under his chin.

“No, I don’t think so.” Similar to how the first intrepid armpit hair of puberty had made him feel like a grown man, Shayaa’s fuzzy proto-beard made him feel like he had a more mature head on his shoulders.

“I think you should. Looking a little ragged there, dude.”

“It’s all right.”

“Your grandparents are gonna be pissed probably. Hey, have you talked to them at all recently?”

Shayaa let his eyes wander back to the window, watching the city flicker by behind his reflection. “They still think I’m at college.”

“Shayaa. If you had just told them you were taking time off school, your folks probably would understand.”

“I still have my student ID, in case they ask. I don’t want to bother them.”

“It’s been a year, dude. How do you keep this going? You’d be a junior this year — they’ll start asking you about capstone projects and stuff like that.”

“Yeah, I don’t really know what I’ll do about that.”

Marjorie’s braid whipped around underneath her beanie as she turned to face him. Her eyes were wide with disbelief. “You don’t know?

“I don’t.”

Dude. I… Dude.” Marjorie heaved a long, frustrated sigh and sank deeper into her seat. “Look, Shayaa, I care about you, but you’re going to have to face this sometime soon. Find a new job, get your own place, or something. You can’t just sit around and do… whatever this is.”

The boarded-up recreational facility whirred by the bus window. Shayaa scratched the side of his head. “My folks, they haven’t called you, have they?”

“My broke ass? They don’t give me the time of day. I mean, I got enough to move out and work two jobs, but you know how your folks and mine got along when were were kids. I’m still just That Girl From Across The Block working at that bougie pizza shop.”

She threw up her hands in mock surrender, dropping them back onto her backpack.

“Guess they won’t be coming tomorrow, though. Your folks didn’t know this guy like they did Kyle, did they?”

A pang of something flashed in Shayaa’s temple. He tried to ignore that something.

Marjorie continued: “You remember how long it took me so long to get over Kyle being gone, right? I was a total wreck, you were there. But, like—”


But she was relentless. “I dunno, it just felt okay to feel like shit for a while, like, like…” Her words turned into hiccups as she started to cry, sucking in air quickly. “Just let that shit out, you know? This shit just happens so fast sometimes that it’s just like… give me a fucking chance, like…”

Marjorie lifted her eyes from the sleeve of her jacket and gave Shayaa a long stare that made him feel invaded. In all their years together, he never got used to the look she gave that pierced right through his eyeballs and tried picking apart his brain. He directed his eyes to the floor.

“Like, I just got used to Kyle being gone,” said Marjorie, looking upwards so her eyes could dry. “Now Jose’s gone too. He used to trash talk my pasta all the time, talk about all the girls he brought home. Like, shit, I didn’t even like the guy that much, but this shit still hurts.”

“I miss him too,” was all Shayaa managed to say. A long silence followed as Marjorie pulled a tissue out of her backpack. He awkwardly continued: “Look, I’m thinking I’ll—”

“Quit bullshitting your folks.”

“Start doing a freelance job.”

Marjorie blew loudly into a tissue like a trumpet blast of disbelief.

“I thought taking up an extra hobby could be good, to pass the time. Maybe something we could do together?”

Marjorie only had to look at Shayaa for one second more to break his mask and probe his mind. Her brown eyes burrowed in deep, trying to pull out change, trying to pull Shayaa from whatever rut he was stuck in and not telling her.

But eventually, she just said, “Do whatever you need to do, Shayaa.”

They rode the rest of the bus ride in silence.

  • • •

Marjorie’s apartment had a tiny bathroom in which the mirror — as a cruel joke on the part of the architects — stood facing the toilet. Shayaa was just tall enough that, sitting down on the commode, he could see the area above his nose reflected in the mirror.

“Would you like to see a familiar face at the wake again, tomorrow?” The Manyfacedgod always cornered Shayaa here, while his body was busy with other functions.

“No, please no,” Shayaa replied. “Don’t do what you did at Kyle’s funeral. That was so, so weird.”

“Apologies, child. While I am not new to this—” The pupils in Shayaa’s reflection suddenly dilated and un-dilated rapidly. His eyes rolled into the back of his head and his eyebrows undulated uniformly. “…I am very new to grief.”

“Well don’t do… that.”

“I’m just trying to help. It is the only way I know how.”

The Manyfacedgod had first appeared to Shayaa on the black mirror of a coffin lid one year ago. It had been a closed casket wake for Kyle — the service was packed with his childhood friends, including Marjorie and Shayaa. They swam together at the local rec center and hung out at the same after school program. Kyle even lived on the same street — when their mamas told them not to cycle too far, they rounded the same stop sign at the street’s end. Since Kyle was the best swimmer out of all of them, the news that he had been found limp by the riverside felt unreal. The wake felt like a sick joke that everyone but Shayaa was in on. They never found out how he went.

“Do not worry,” said a face on the curved side of a coffin. Shayaa seemed to be the only one to hear it. When he looked at the reflection, the face staring back at him was not his, but Kyle’s. His mop of loose curls, his goofy grin. Just seeing that face again felt like hot and cold water running over Shayaa’s gut at the same time. It knotted his intestines and put white-hot pangs of sadness in his throat. Shayaa remembered distinctly the sudden conflicted urges he had to cry and throw up at the same time. He did neither. The Manyfacedgod, in what they said was an act of goodwill, offered Shayaa a momentary mask to get him through the funeral and the grieving process. Shayaa, who had always been told he was a chronic under-reactor, said no thank you.

A year had passed and the tears never came. The memory of the wake lay buried deep below the day-to-day struggles that had to be dealt with first. Like stocking the paper cups, or replacing the toilet paper in the bathroom, or Googling “how to buy camera” after “beginner photography.” He’d dropped out of his sophomore year at American University because he suddenly couldn’t handle anything that took too much introspection or critical theory. A boring job at the local pizza joint was, and continued to be, cathartic. He had even taken the Manyfacedgod up on their offer once or twice, to get through the days when the anxiety pulled him in a few directions too many and the depression sat a little heavier and hotter in his gut than usual. What made Shayaa uneasy was how those bad days only got more frequent with time, no matter how much grunt work he tried to distract himself with.

And now, Shayaa and Marjorie had lost another person. Truth be told, he was grateful Marjorie mentioned his name, because Shayaa had forgotten it. When Marjorie had told him about Jose’s accident, he could only picture Kyle’s face, glassy and concerned on the coffin lid.

“Can I ask you a question?” Shayaa asked as he wiped.

“You can.” The voice of the Manyfacedgod was hard to place at first. He expected it to be one thousand voices speaking in unison, like on television. But Shayaa had quickly identified the voice to be the same one he heard when he read something in his head or when he had a thought. It was a voice he assumed was his own, in the same way he assumed that when he closed his eyes, the color he saw was black.

“I told you no the first time, when Kyle died. Why’d you hang around me, then? Why didn’t you find someone else?”
“Bold of you to assume I did not. Child, I am in many places, all the time. Reflections in puddles, the mirrors you turn your back on, the darkness of your phone screen before your pornography loads—”

Shayaa’s reflection closed its eyes — had its mouth been visible, it would have sighed. “What I mean to say is, you are not the only one who sees me. In fact, I believe most humans can see me, or are at least aware of me. I think they find me a tad frightening.”

“Wonder why.” Shayaa flushed and headed from the bathroom to the living room. Marjorie had left for a late-night workout, leaving Shayaa the living room and the kitchen to bum around. His piles of work uniforms and clothes had gathered around his mattress on the floor, so he had moved his laptop and magazines to the kitchen table. The Manyfacedgod, reflected on the glass of the table, let out a deep, dissatisfied sigh at the bundles of celebrity photos Shayaa had clipped from magazines. They lay scattered across the circular glass table, and they peppered the floor with award-winning, engineered smiles.
“Photography is a sin,” said Shayaa’s reflection on the glass kitchen table. The whirr of Shayaa’s old laptop partially muffled the Manyfacedgod, who would have preferred to materialize in a full-length mirror. “Faces are not meant to last forever like this.”

“Photography has been around for a long time.” Shayaa clicked through Craigslist page after Craigslist page of used 35mm cameras. “How old are you, anyway?”

“My age does not excuse this transgression.”

“Why are you even here? Why now?” Shayaa, frustrated, massaged the bridge of his nose with his fingertips. Checked to see if his head was still on straight. Small nothings buzzed inside his cranium — when he was counting register money or mopping the floor, he was too focused to notice them. But now, in the stillness and in the presence of hundreds of thousands of millions of eyes, intrusive thoughts buzzed too loudly for Shayaa to ignore.

“I should ask you the same thing, child.”

“I’m following a dream, I’m finding meaningful work,” Shayaa snapped back. He had learned that it was during these dangerous transitional periods that the Manyfacedgod liked to flaunt their presence. “Unlike you. You just float around.”

“I would say we both do our share of ‘floating around.’”

“Well, I’m trying to not do that. I’m trying to make art.”

“When are you going to learn that this is not for making art.” Suddenly the Manyfacedgod’s voice rippled with legions of timbres all sharp with a disdain reserved for false idols. The contempt slithered up under the skin of Shayaa’s neck and made his patchy, curly facial hair stand up on end. The itch was like a thumbtack into every pore on his face. Shayaa started scratching, but each fingernail swipe left him feeling itchier than before.

“I’m working on myself.”

“This is a distraction — no, worse than that. You humans try this photography to make things last forever and make faces last forever and that is my job and that is a sin.”

Shayaa scratched and scratched. “I’m being someone.”

“You are already a ‘someone.’ Why can you not just be that ‘someone’?”

Shayaa smashed his fist on the Manyfacedgod’s reflection. The smiling Tom Cruises and Kardashians jumped into the air, fluttered on the table, and settled on the ground and stared at him.

“You asked how old I was before, child, to which I respond: My age is incomprehensible to you. But I revealed myself to you — no, your mind’s eye made me seen to you — because of your stoicism, your stone-faced demeanor. You hardly had a reaction the first time I appeared to you, and that intrigued me.”

“I just didn’t have any energy to respond. Nothing in the tank, man. It’s not all that special. Plenty of people out here are going through shit.”

“Which is exactly why I am trying to help you, child. You have such a beautiful face—”

“I bet you say that to everyone.”

“—and it would be a shame to see it stiffen and harden into a drab, melancholic mold. Let me uplift you, child.”

Shayaa uncurled his fist — his fingertips were spackled red where they had broken the skin in his palms.

“Don’t you want to have an unbreakable face? A survival mask?” said the voices under Shayaa’s hand.

He only then realized how heavily he was gasping for breath. How the whiteheads he’d scratched off his face ran red rivulets over his cheeks. How everything was rushing back to him, about to break through the mask he had built from shifts at Joe’s and Have a nice day! Thanks for coming in! and a bone-deep desire to sink into somewhere empty.

“I can give that to you if you would like, child.”

Shayaa pulled his hand up off the glass, and in the reflection underneath, Kyle’s face was staring up at him, cheery, like he had never left.

“Fuck you, don’t do that.”

The face shifted and changed into a visage Shayaa couldn’t immediately place, until he realized, all of a heart-wrenching sudden, was Jose.

“Fuck you.”

“I just want to see you smile, Shayaa.” There was a tiny drop of malicious sarcasm in the voice of the Manyfacedgod.

Fuck you.

“I can take that pain away from you and your friends. Marjorie, she hurts when she sees you sad, Shayaa. You know that. I can make it such that she will not spend more time worrying about you along with the grief she is already feeling—”

The glass table shattered as Shayaa slammed shut the laptop’s lid. It sprinkled all over the floor in tiny, glittery fragments. Shayaa gripped the empty table frame with his hands, squeezing it tightly until his palms bled. He could feel dry heaves yanking on his stomach, his teeth gnashing together. Everything that lay bottled up and fermenting under the skin for the past year was coming up to the surface. But no matter how hard he strained, he couldn’t exorcise it from his body. He squeezed his eyes — still no tears.

From a large chunk of glass, a fragment of Shayaa’s nonplussed reflection stared back.

By the time Marjorie returned, all the “candid” celeb shots had been tucked away, the glass had been cleaned up, and the lights had been turned off. To get into her bedroom, she crossed the living room, passing by the mattress on the floor where Shayaa was trying and failing to sleep. In the darkness his skin felt like a shell — a suit of armor with rusted joints that didn’t move right no matter what his brain tried to make him do. He felt the ache and fatigue in his muscles, having stood at the register for twelve straight hours, but his mind buzzed a mile a minute. In the darkness, nothing seemed to fit.

“Are you still there?” Shayaa whispered in the darkness.

No response.

“I don’t want to do this again. I can’t do this again.”

In Marjorie’s living room, Shayaa felt the first few drops of rainfall on his face.

“Even the lips?”


  • • •

With his face shaven and smooth above his black suit, Shayaa went through the entire wake without remembering a single thing. His face felt like a hard plastic mask, and quietly he went through the motions. He bowed his head in prayer, he shook hands, he gave his condolences. And he did feel sad, but this sadness had a new face. This was a sadness that felt less like sinking and more like standing on swampy ground. Shayaa moved from one suit to the next — from a dark church dress to a rectangular black suit. A transition of hands on hands and hands on handkerchiefs.

Marjorie stood by the casket with red eyes. For the first time on that sunny afternoon, Shayaa approached the casket and stood by her as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and said a quick blessing over the body.

The casket was open. The mannequin-esque head perched upon a pillow was still foreign to Shayaa. But he knew he was sad. He knew this person. He finally made room for grief for this person, but in the process of erasure and release he let go of every single memory and thought that tied him to the person the body belonged to. But despite not knowing whose body was in the coffin he still felt the pain of the loss and that made him angry. He wanted to shout but the pressure just boiled in his gut and a slight wheeze funneled out of his mouth. He tried clenching his fists tight enough to break the skin of his palms but his tendons ran out of tension and his fingers just hung limp.

And he just wanted to cry.

He shut his molded eyes tight and tightened his manufactured jaw and tried to cry in the visage the Manyfacedgod had granted him.

This was not what he wanted.

But in the light the tears wouldn’t come.

  • • •

“Can we take a few more?”

Marjorie lowered her film camera and huffed. On the other side of the lens, Shayaa was perched on a wooden stool in front of a white screen. The falling early evening sun shone through the windows of the warehouse in which the two had set up shop. Marjorie checked her watch, checked outside the window. Last time she had checked, the sun was standing above the skyscrapers.

“Yeah, Shayaa? Don’t think you’ve got enough headshots?”

“Come on. Please? I haven’t even given you my magnum.” Shayaa craned his neck out as far from his shoulders as possible. Making sure to tuck in his tongue to minimize the meat under his neck, he tightened his jaw and stuck his lips out as far as they could go.

Marjorie was staring at an unfortunate Picasso parody. “I… What is that?”

“My magnum. It’s my magnum,” said Shayaa as he loosened all the muscles above his shoulders. “It’s supposed to be ‘aesthetic.’”

“Oh yeah, yeah man. You are… mad aesthetic.” That was all Marjorie could say before breaking into a fit of cackling. Shayaa laughed a little bit too. The photoshoot was over. It had started with shots of gritty underpasses and overturned shopping carts, but it ended with one guy doing his best Grace Jones because he felt the urge out of nowhere to model.

“I got us some time to reserve the darkroom today,” said Marjorie as she and Shayaa collected the camera and the rest of their belongings. “Finally, we can get these photos printed.” They headed down a creaky staircase and rounded the bend into a windowless, black-painted crevice tucked away underneath. Shayaa headed into the meticulously crafted lightlessness alone. He unrolled the film from the camera and began the process of turning negatives into the amateur portraits of gritty urban life and DIY-core that got the attention of local zines.

Marjorie loved taking pictures, but the dark, humidity-controlled screen printing area was Shayaa’s domain. Enlarging, positioning, and checking the sharpness of prints almost felt like second nature. In the darkroom, time was out of his hands. He couldn’t develop all the photographs in one sitting because the chemical process took hours. And he liked that. He liked the gentle, baby-in-a-bath sounds of the paper shaking in the stop bath. He liked that the only part of his body that mattered the most were his hands. In the darkness, there was no IMAX to zone out to. No slideshow, no presentation. The lack of light forced him to focus, which was uncomfortable at first.

And with every measurement of the paper, every print of his smiling brown face, Shayaa swore he could feel the presence of hundreds of millions of faces. The Manyfacedgod hadn’t spoken since the wake, but like the lowest note on an organ, they filled pockets of silence every now and again.

Shayaa lifted the print out of the bath and held it up to the white light. It was a picture he had taken with Kyle and Marjorie, years ago. He had unearthed it after cleaning up mountains of magazines and clothes. The picture itself wasn’t remarkable in the way it was framed or shot – just three kids at the rec pool. Still, he forced himself to stare at it, taking deep breaths that started to build into gulps of sobbing. Sweet, salty, surrenderous sobbing. He had learned his lesson at Jose’s funeral — feeling his soft, malleable face contort and twist as he ugly-cried felt natural and normal.

He lowered the print and let his tears bubble to the surface. They slid warmly down his face. They caressed his cheeks. They reassured Shayaa that his head was on straight — that everything was exactly where it needed to be.