Visage | Matt Erickson

2

A few months ago, I read an article in the Times
about a just-solved case opened in 1995, an
anonymous car crash victim, the opposite of a
missing person: found body, no identity. Facts were
pieced together. A teenage boy hitchhiking down
the East Coast was riding in an orange VW van that
hit a pine tree in rural Virginia, killing both driver
and passenger instantly as they flew through the
windshield, their bodies later found hanging limp
from low branches, head wounds rendering the
boy’s face blank. The young hitchhiker had no ID in
his pockets, only four quarters, a yellow lighter,
ticket stubs for a Grateful Dead concert a few days
earlier, and a scribbled note that read “To Jason,
Sorry we had to go. See you around. Caroline O and
Caroline T”. This Jason became an immediate
specter, untraceable, later dubbed “Grateful Doe”
by Deadheads and amateur sleuths alike, two
unrelated dark factions fueled by message boards.
For the intervening twenty years, they obsessively
circulated composite images of this possible face,
features molded from vague fragments, trying to
solve an actual mystery. The newspaper article
embedded two of these images within the text. Both
were deeply haunting. The earlier composite seems
threaded by blurry stitches, almost Cubist, showing
what Jason’s face may have looked like at the time
of the accident, stuck floating in a permanent youth,
the face looking not quite human, not quite
inhuman, but flickering between, an inverted
uncanny valley produced by primitive software. The
more recent composite shows Jason in a projected
future that never came, his face filled out with age,
in his thirties, wearing the same tie-dyed shirt as he
always has, ever since the night of the crash, his lips
lifted into an uneasy grin, a gesture hard to read.
After giving up looking, assuming he had vanished
decades ago, Jason’s mom located her lost son after
seeing the images wind their way into her social
media accounts by pure chance. What could she
have thought when she saw these faces that so
closely resembled her young son, rough masks
distributed through the ether without her?

3

Just the other day, the woman behind the till at the
coffee shop stared into me with squinted lids as she
handed me my uncounted change. “Are you from
here
?” she asked, slowly. I paused. “It depends
what you mean from here,” I said back, just as slow.
That’s my default answer to this kind of question.
Everyone has a different time frame. “Like, did you
go to elementary school here?” When I told the
cashier that I hadn’t, that I went to elementary
school three thousand miles away, she looked
visibly relieved. “I wasn’t sure. You look exactly
like a kid I went to elementary school with. Never
mind.” As I walked down the street with my coffee,
I wondered if she meant that there was a ten-year-
old she once knew who already looked like a
scraggly thirtysomething way back then or if she
had an image readily in her mind of what that young
classmate may have looked like decades later, some
mean tyke’s chubby face altered by a foggy
retroactive future. Is it possible that — at this very
moment, three thousand miles away — in my
hometown, there is a cashier that I grew up with
who stops a customer to ask if they are me, as the
stranger and I share some unknown distinct features
that links their present face with mine? Is that
cashier also relieved when my cross-country
doppelgänger admits to being a different person?
What did I do wrong to that cashier twenty years
ago? I should start answering with a definitive yes,
yes I’m from here, no matter where I am. This
question gets asked often enough that I could be
from many places simultaneously, that my own
history could be multiplied and overlapped. I could
force people to relive unwanted fragments from
their youth for some sick fleeting pleasure.

4

Several years ago, an image of a drawn face
circulated furtively through the internet — a slightly
balding man with ample eyebrows over wideset
child eyes, a slugshaped mouth, long sideburns
framing his circular head, all of it rendered in the
rough style of a police sketch. The face had been
appearing in dreams around the world. This generic
man had visited hundreds of sleepers — in Sao
Paolo, Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, Beijing, Rome,
New Delhi, Moscow, Tehran, Los Angeles,
elsewhere. This man gave them advice. This man
followed them through department stores. This man
muttered to himself. This man waved at them from
across rooms. This man took them out to dinner.
This man had muted sex with them. The vaguely
European face became known as This Man.
Theories circulated. Some posited him as a kind of
dream surfer, channeling his way into the global
subconscious to manipulate vulnerable dozers,
using their dormant bodies as vessels for his own
virtual reality experiments. Others thought the face
was a composite, a nobody and an everybody, an
archetype of a non-person. It was later revealed that
an Italian sociologist manufactured This Man as an
intricate meme. Scientists claim that every face we
interact with in our dream life is taken from the
shadowy corners of our waking life, the woman we
see sitting in the car behind us in the review mirror
at a stoplight, the teenager selling us popcorn at the
movie theater in the mall, the couple revolving
around us in the subway turnstile, the elderly man
buying geraniums at the garden store. Even though
This Man is unreal, unlike these other faces, I still
wonder if I’ll encounter him some future night or,
even stranger, my cart might bump into his in the
actual baking aisle, we’re both looking for whole
grain flour. He is no longer a fiction, but an
unaccounted for person floating through
the physical world.

.

.


Matthew Erickson currently lives in Turners Falls, MA. His writing has appeared in BOMB, The Believer, Frieze, The Wire, Weekday and other places. More info: m-erickson.com

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