Mr. Vanilla

An excerpt from Mark de Silva’s The Logos

This is an excerpt from Mark de Silva’s The Logos, published by Splice on April 28 and available for pre-order now.

Although it was past ten, the restaurant proper was still raucous with gasconade, so distinctly violent in its dynamics, the loud-soft-loud of it. Most of the jabber crisscrossing in my ears over the tinkling of cutlery amounted only to fulsome rehearsals of particularly good or bad days at offices that looked and ran much the same. There was probably less to this bluster than there was to the harsh percussion of the knives and forks. Even the waiters offered up more to the mind, the way they hurtled with unflappable calm through the tiny aisles fanning out within the patio doors, feeding the thin-limbed tables that had been arranged, in line with the architecture of the building, in the pleasingly vague shape of a seashell. Anything too literal would have been gauche, of course. Unaccented evocation was needed — and delivered. The ceilings were unusually low for a restaurant of such obvious ambition, but this was also by design, I felt, to induce a feeling of envelopment, as if a wave were cascading over us, sheltering us within its barrel.

Blue, born of tiny halogens ringing the space, bouncing light off the ceiling: blue was the tint of the place. But not a hue that took much of the heat away. Hot blues existed. This was one, though just at that moment I might have preferred a more typical shade. The distilled intensity of the restaurant, incarnated most fully in the staff, was — just in our little walk through the dining room to the lobby — beginning to harm me. The honeymoon wasn’t quite over for Sanguina, that much was clear; only a few months had passed since its opening. At the time, Immo tried to go with me, me and a childhood friend of ours, Gerry Finella, known as Mr. Vanilla in his boyhood. He had roughly equal standing to me with Immo, I’d always felt, though Immo would imply I was a cut above. I couldn’t be persuaded, though: Vanilla was a man of worthy complexity. Ugly, boorish, ingenious in all things — there was nothing vanilla about him, which is just what made the nickname stick. If I were to tally his rank among my friends, as I once had — if I were somehow to recover those bits of paper, half- and quarter-sheets I first tore from each magazine I read in those days to contemplate an issue’s strongest images together, whether it was my father’s Game and Gun or my brother’s Sports Illustrated, and then, after finishing with them, piling them up for use as scrap paper, paper I would sometimes fill the marginal space of, often just to fill it up, with silly rankings of various kinds, including the depth of my friendships — if I were to find those scraps again, I think there’d be at least one or two that had Gerry Vanilla in my top five.

He had an objectively terrible countenance, something like a wad of newspaper. It lent Gerry a meanness he only gradually resigned himself to, before he began positively to embrace it. What sort of man might he have become if not for that crooked brow and those impacted cheeks? His hair frizzed in tight naps of the darkest brown, giving him a foreboding Semitic appearance, with incisors jutting forward, distending his lips and sometimes abrading them, making them fatter than they already were. Still, this ugly little boy was, to put it simply, the cleverest mischief-maker among us, most adept at picking up on how a specific circumstance of suburban banality we’d jointly found ourselves in — a Fourth of July fireworks display, or a Little League baseball game (I played second base and played it badly, blowing I don’t know how many double plays) — might be converted into something as dire and interesting as his face. It was a talent that earned him a place of privilege among us.

Time would reveal his genuine technical talents. He would lead and often concoct all our significant projects of public disturbance: the cooking of gunpowder, for one, stirred over a low flame and left to dry, per an official Army Survival Manual for U.S. soldiers stuck in the field and forced to fabricate their own arms from local supplies; the filling of pipe bombs, for another, which we set off in the large and vaguely bounded park, thick with sequoias, that led right onto a high bluff above rough Northern California waters. We’d strap these devices to empty park benches, light the extra-long fuses we’d braided ourselves, and hide behind trees, waiting for the hikers and picnickers to scatter at the detonations roaring and the benches splintering into nothing.

Vanilla was also very good — legendary, really — when it came to Halloween, the way he could pedal his BMX to extreme speeds, on a course just inches from children, and expertly snatch a bag from a hand, sometimes with a mother or father still holding the other. Even when the parents followed along behind in their cars, and they could readily give chase, Vanilla’s agility, together with his preternatural grasp of geographic minutiae — where exactly every lane and alley and speed bump was, or every neighbor’s lawn he could cut across without fear of dogs — meant that even longtime residents eventually lost him. Whenever Immo or I, or a tall black boy named Taylor, the most handsome of us and by far the most successful with women, or Lawrence, a nervous, well-read sort who could be emboldened into such antics only by peer pressure — whenever we tried to follow Vanilla’s candy-snatching lead, we generally ended up letting go of the bag at the last moment to keep ourselves from crashing, if we didn’t actually sideswipe the trick-or-treater and bring both of us down in a tumble, which, once we’d gathered our wits and taken stock of our wounds, we’d play off as a horrible accident (not exactly untrue). The parents never accepted this, of course, but there was no real evidence against us, and the rider, having fallen at high speed, was nearly always worse off than the grazed victim. Meanwhile, Vanilla could collect half-a-dozen bags in just forty-five minutes and a couple of miles’ worth of riding.

Even when our take was nothing at all and we were coming away with bent handlebars and skinned knees for our trouble, we would coast down to Gerry’s house, which was in the neighborhood occupying the base of the hills. Though he wasn’t poor, he was poorer than us. Yet this had hardly any effect on our dealings with him; it might even have given him cachet. Inside we’d find his mother, a skittish woman with sharp black eyes that shadowed you no matter how many times you’d come around, just before she lost all interest in you and her gaze drifted toward the ceiling or the floor. She’d be standing there in a simple house-dress, and always without her husband. I don’t believe we saw him but once or twice. He worked in Fresno or Stockton during the week, so she would be left to man the fort. On Halloween she’d always leave the garage open, knowing that each of us would eventually come coasting down the street looking for our leader. She’d stand by the inner door opening onto the living room of the long, flat, single-story home, waiting to give us the usual inspection as we set our bikes down as gently as we could and strode inside. We’d head down the narrow hall lined with thick shag carpet that absorbed our feet like sand, all the way to the back where Vanilla’s room lay. Gerry would be waiting for us, in this tiny space that was mostly bed, sitting on a strip of free carpet, his many brimming bags of candy neatly arranged on the duvet. When all four of us had finally arrived from our separate missions, and we’d each added whatever pittance we could to the lineup — our bags always seemed withered compared to his — only then would he empty all of the bags before us onto the floor, as if we were all equal contributors, and, that done, flash his earnest, horrible smile, the only one he had. He shouldn’t have been held responsible for it except on days like that, where its ghoulishness couldn’t have been more appropriate. That smile: how we laughed and shuddered and laughed again at it while stuffing ourselves with ill-gotten gains.

When we were older, in high school, and we’d mostly given up Halloween, now that we could drive, I could still only see the child’s face in Vanilla, that Halloween face, or, at best, an aged version in which nothing had fundamentally shifted. Reality, of course, had no trouble disobeying my imagination. Gerry had developed a chin — a jaw, too. Like his teeth, the bones of his face had begun all out of place; yet over the years they must have been working themselves around like tectonic plates. Only recently had the point been passed at which one might note this shift with any certainty, and even that took some doing. I could definitely see these differences in Vanilla’s countenance, but doing so meant actively fighting against my unconscious urge to replace sensation with memory.

By this time he’d moved farther away from us, somewhere deep in Oakland. I believe his father might have lost his job, or gone through a separation. Gerry was vague about this, and we didn’t press him. Whatever the case, some way or another Vanilla managed to graduate from College Preparatory with us, never mind the steep tuition. Throughout our high school years, his facility with devices and programs of all kinds continued to strengthen. That’s how, without a word of encouragement — I don’t believe he had any coding friends, not in real life — he began to engineer malware. He was a programming savant, and self-taught, which surprised none of us. Destroying terabytes of academic data at College Prep was his first and greatest achievement there. Only after being caught did Vanilla genuinely turn vanilla: he saved himself from expulsion — and landed on a goldmine to boot — by designing anti-malware in his computer-science classes, as a condition of his probation. It couldn’t have been more than five years before he was rich — richer than any of us today, even, including Immo and Lawrence (now a somewhat middling hotelier), not to mention Taylor (a prodigious pharmacist). By his senior year at UCLA, he was what you would call a man of means: just after graduating he bought his mom (and, in a way, himself) a new house in our neighborhood in Berkeley, the very one his family had aspired to live in during his childhood. Early success spared him not only the indignities of post-collegiate malaise, but having to live with the face nature bestowed on him. His net worth brought the nimblest surgeons within his reach. I’d not known his physiognomy to have bothered him that much, but there you have it. He went about harmonizing his face. Nothing drastic, it seemed: just enough fat injected into his brow to un-crumple it, just enough of the same drawn from his lips to make them expressive, and just enough resurfacing to make everything glow.

Immo, who’d kept up with Gerry even after his professional turn to software — I didn’t see the point — was sure there must have been more work done than this. Whatever the truth, it was good old Gerry Finella, the man with the new money and the new face, who was going to treat me and Immo to dinner at Sanguina. Taylor was in town, too, but evidently had fallen out with Gerry for obscure reasons, and Lawrence, the last of our crew, was based in Dallas these days.

I actually meant to attend this dinner. I can’t remember what exactly prevented me from doing so on the day. Something of no account, I’m sure. Still, I think I was pleased not to have to adapt to Gerry’s new face, to have my impression of him, the boy at the bottom of the hill, changed by his riches. It may not have been right of me to have been charmed by his early privation, and by the ingenuity it brought out of him (changing his face, it seemed to me, was the opposite of that: a conservative gesture), but I was charmed. We were all charmed.