Monday, 7 November 2011

64) Mask Man

    Once upon a time in a big city there was a costume shop. They carried the expected Halloween latex masks for children and enterprising young fellows with poor impulse control, abusive personalities, and a penchant for guns. But what they had down stairs was much more interesting. The owner, one Mr. DeLong (widower), would take you down there if you slipped him a twenty.
    What you’d see first is darkness, then of course he’d flick on the lights, but it would still be dim down there past the creaking stairs. As you rounded the corner there’d be DeLong’s pride and joy, his collection of historical masks. Huge wooden masks from native peoples all around the world, horned African masks and Inuit masks with tubes sprouting out of strange places and more. And maybe one of these masks would talk to you, prompt you to pull it down and put it on, just for a laugh. And you would go to pick it up off the wall and then remember where you were and who you weren’t. This is the modern world and there’s no need for such ostentatious masks. No, the masks we wear are simpler. The good husband mask, the goodly wife mask, the concerned lover mask, the attentive student mask. Our modern world is filled with masks, but we wear them on our minds. And you think that maybe these huge unwieldy masks were from a more honest time.
    And DeLong sees your frustration, so close to a newly found desire and restricted by the social contract of good manners. You can’t just pop up and take one off the wall and run with it. There’s no telling how old or valuable they are and you might break it. He laughs and walks up to the closest mask, it’s a little bigger than a soccer ball and covered in beautiful yellow and black feathers. You think it’s from some island nation. He hands it to you with a nod. You take it and its lighter than it looks. It’s soft and smooth, the feathers cover the entire surface. You turn it back and forth. The inside surface is made of some vegetable matter, maybe palm fronds you guess. You think you smell the ocean, but it’s gone before you can verify. And you pull the mask up to your face and line up the eye holes with your own eyes.
    And you wait for some electric knowledge to jolt through your soul, but it’s just an old mask. While holding it up to your face you look around the dimly lit basement at the rest of the masks and Mr. DeLong and you wonder how it would have been for the original wearer, what kind of ritual they performed with this mask. Was it a fertility ritual, coming or age, or a war dance? Or something else you don’t have a word for in your language?
    Enough time has passed for you to sample the mask and you reluctantly take it off your face and hand it back to DeLong. He takes it with a smile and an eyebrow wiggle. He puts it back up on the wall, but in a different spot than where he took it down from, and that makes the back of your hand itchy for some reason.
    Then there’s a phone ringing from upstairs. He motions for you to follow him back up the stairs. You do so and the stairs creak the same way and the light switch clicks off the same way, but you look down into the darkness in a different way then when you went down. You can’t tell if you’re deflated by the reality of the masks, just piles of feathers and wood, or if you’re feeling sour grapes because you know you’ll never go down there again.
    DeLong waves for you to wait, like he’s going to show you more of the basement. But he’s on the phone for a few minutes, talking excitedly in a different language, you can’t tell if its Greek or some Slavic tongue. And you want to stay, but there’s homework to do, or you have a date, or you’re hungry, or you just feel the pulse of the city outside pulling you back out.
    You try to wave to DeLong, but he’s well into his conversation and only when you leave through the door does he turn to you and wave back. You both smile.
    The sun is warm, or it’s raining. Either way it’s a comforting reality and you return to your life.
    You forget about that costume shop for years. For whatever reason you just never go by that block again until one day you’ve graduated or you have an new job or a new girl friend and the name of the street you’re on rings a bell and you wonder if that costume shop is still there. In this neighborhood sometimes dry cleaners are around for forty years while a posh restaurant can barely last a season. The city is capricious.
    The neighborhood hasn’t changed much. A few buildings have a new coat of paint and the cars are totally different. You walk up and down the street a few times until you’re sure you’ve got the right place, you can tell by the thin alley across the street, that memory is somehow the most vivid.
    And of course the costume shop is gone. People don’t wear costumes that much these days. There’s a bakery or a pizza shop or just boarded up windows there now. And you peek through the window and it’s just as advertised, the glare on the windows was hiding nothing.

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