Saturday, May 1, 2010

Masks (1990)

Mainstream Fiction
2,854 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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“Hey, Big Guy,” Chris said. “How do you make a woman have an orgasm?”

I looked up from the pizza I was making. I said I didn’t know.

Chris shrugged his shoulders. “Who cares?”

I chuckled. Typical. The joke was typical Chris Foster. I heard Julie scoff from inside the till. I was sure the joke hadn’t gone over as big with her.

“You guys are pigs,” she called out.

I finished throwing sausage on the pizza and put it in the oven. The place was officially closed; we were making this one for us. Against regulations, sure, but kind of a reward for not losing our minds after another night at Shakey’s Pizza and Buffet.

“Hey, Julie,” Chris called out, giving me an elbow in the ribs. “You going to go out with me or what?”

Julie was counting quarters. I could hear them drop into the drawer by fours. She was the assistant manager and responsible for the money in the till. “How long?” she said.

Chris gave me a quizzical look. “What do you mean? Just for one night.”

Julie moved to the dimes. “No. I mean, how long are you? How much are you packing?”

I laughed. She’d called us pigs.

Chris wasn’t laughing. “I don’t know. Why?”

Julie’s voice was dead serious. “Seven inches. I never go out with a guy unless he had at least seven inches.”

Chris was looking at me. He looked a little worried.

Come on, Chris. She’s yanking you. Can’t you see that? She loves putting people in their place. That joke of yours got to her so now she’s getting to you. Hitting you where you live. Hitting you below the belt, as it were.

“Are you serious?” Chris called out.

Nickels make a different sound from dimes. She’s counting at the same time she’s talking to you, Chris. Five ten fifteen twenty. How serious can she be?

“Of course,” Julie said. “How long are you?”

Chris was biting his upper lip. “I don’t know.”

That’ll do it, Chris. Chicks dig it when you take control of a situation. Isn’t that what you always told me?

Pennies. “Well,” Julie said, “tell you what. You go home tonight and see how you measure up. If you’ve got seven inches under your belt, you’ve got yourself a date. But don’t you lie to me. If you don’t live up to your word, there’s no telling what I may do to it. I will be very upset.”

Chris wiped his brow and gave me the thumbs up. “I got it covered this time, Big Guy. Nooo problem.”

I looked at Chris sideways. Yeah, right. You call me Big Guy not because I’m so big but because you’re so small. And it was true. Chris Foster, who considered himself the resident stud of the entire kitchen crew, was in actuality a tiny person. I didn’t believe he had ever been diagnosed with medical dwarfism, but he was short and slight in every visible respect. I didn’t see how this one was going to be any different. He looked like a wing-clipped pixie.

I gave him some business. I told him, gee whiz, seven was probably a lot more than he thought.

He laughed. “Oh yeah? How would you know?”

I bounced my eyebrows up and down.

Julie came out of the till carrying the cash drawer. She was a big-chested dream of twenty-three and seemed miles away from the cap and gown I had worn a month ago at my high school graduation. I found myself wondering if she was really being serious with Chris and whether or not I would meet her qualifications. I thought I would.

“I have off tomorrow night,” she said to Chris. “But I see by the schedule that we work together again on Sunday. Think you can wait till then?”

“The question is,” Chris said, “can you wait till then, babe?” He made a gun with his thumb and forefinger and shot Julie a wink.

I laughed again. You’re such a stud, Chris. A real beefy bo-hunk. It’s a wonder she doesn’t throw you down and do you right here on the prep table. Hell, I know how to lock up.

Julie kept walking. “Just remember. Seven inches. And no lying.”

“No problem,” Chris said.

I checked to see how the pizza was coming.

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The night that Julie had off I had off, too, and I had a date with Patty. She was another girl who worked at Shakey’s. She was sixteen and went to a different high school from the one I had gone to. We had gone out a couple of times already. I liked her. She was kind of funny in her way, but it wasn’t like we were serious or anything.

I think I should take time out here to talk about events in my life and how my thinking was operating so you can better understand the things you will read about. I was a month past high school graduation and had already been accepted to a state university almost a hundred miles away. I was looking forward to going away to school. I really didn’t have too many ties in my hometown. I have never had a great surplus of friends. In those days I had two. Some people, especially in high school, will go through the yearbooks and for every face they can connect a name to, they will put that person on their list of friends. The word ‘friend’ always meant a little more to me, I guess. I knew a lot of people, but I really had only two friends. One was going to another college upstate and the other was joining the Air Force, so there was really no one left in my hometown for me to miss. Well, my parents, I suppose, but you only admit that kind of thing at Christmas time.

The point is, the people I worked with a Shakey’s, Patty included, were just people I worked with. I liked most of them, but it wasn’t like I ever really got to know them. Everybody had their guard up at work, I think because it was such a public place.

So, Patty and I went out that night to a movie and then to Rocky Rococo’s afterward. It was a fairly typical evening with Patty. She always acted like she was above ordinary things like cleaning the grout in the ladies room, wearing the blue ‘Shakey’s’ visor, or ever getting excited about anything. Like I said, she was sixteen and just a sophomore, and she had different things on her mind from what I did. Pom-Pom practice, cheating on geometry tests (her teacher hated her), and trying to look cool in front of her crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not coming down on her for it, but it seemed like I had left those things far behind me. They weren’t bad things to have at the top of your Most Important Things list. Sometimes I wish I still had some of them at the top of mine.

So I was taking her home (she lived way out in the boonies) and as usual I parked the car in a secluded little spot in the part of her neighborhood that was still under construction. House skeletons lined a couple of newly-paved roads and there were no streetlights set up yet. All the times we had gone out, we had gone there to make out a little before I took her home. We never did anything real serious. She was still a virgin, and either wanted to keep her virginity a little longer or didn’t want to give it to me. Either way, it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t going to push her into anything she wasn’t ready for.

But that night we didn’t make out much at all.

“What are you going to study at college?” Patty asked me as I shut the engine off. I turned the key past the lock position to keep the radio on.

I told her astronomy. I thought that I had told her that several times already.

The moon sat low in the sky above an abandoned dumptruck. She pointed at it. “Really? Okay, what’s that?”

She was being cute. It was one of the things she thought she did really well. I told her it was Venus.

She smiled. “You’ll do fine. Where are you going to live?”

I told her I had applied for the dorms but I hadn’t got any information back yet.

“Do you think you’ll like it?”

I told her I hoped to. I was counting craters on the moon.

“What are you going to do when you graduate?”

I looked at her. Since when was she so interested in me? I thought it was my job to listen to her. Wasn’t her life more important than mine? I asked her what was going on.

“What do you mean?”

I asked her what was with all the questions.

She folded her hands in her lap. She was wearing a red skirt. Skirts were currently in. For a second it reminded me of Chris’ red Triumph and it seemed to me that a girl like Patty belonged in that kind of car. Going to the malt shop with the top down and getting a single vanilla cone when she really wanted fourteen banana splits. I had trouble seeing her in my car with a guy like me. I drove a beige AMC Concord.

“Well, it’s just that you’ll be going away and all, and who knows when you’ll be coming back?”

I told her Christmas.

“Home,” she said. “You’ll be coming home. But when will you be coming back to Shakey’s?”

I told her I was hoping to go a little farther than that with my degree.

She slapped me on the thigh. “You know what I mean.”

Yes, I guess I did. I looked at the moon. I didn’t want to look at her. She was making me nervous. The moon wasn’t quite full. No, if it was up this late, it must be past full. That would make it a waning gibbous. I said I didn’t know when I would be coming back. I asked her why it mattered.

I was still looking at the moon. Her voice was small and sounded like it was coming out of the ashtray in her armrest.

“Because I’ll miss you.”

I looked back at her and for half a second I didn’t recognize her at all. She not only looked different from how she’d looked earlier that evening, she looked different in a way that I had never seen her look before. She hadn’t changed her hairstyle or switched her lipstick or something superficial like that. The changes went deeper than that. Her posture was somehow different and she seemed to hold herself in a different way. It took me a while to figure out she had taken her mask off.

I kept mine on.

She dropped her eyes. She seemed to stare at her shoes for a long time. They were red to match her skirt and they rubbed against the backs of her heels when she walked. She had two small patches of raw skin there.

“Take me home,” she said.

I started the engine, dropped the transmission into drive, and pulled away from the curb.

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“Hey, Big Guy. I want to ask you something.”

Chris sat with his feet up on the desk in the back office. Julie was already working. They had talked but I didn’t know what had been said. We had ten minutes before we had to punch in.

What did you tell Julie, Chris? Seven and two more to grow on? Probably not. Probably something like you couldn’t do the measurement because you need someone else to hold the end of the tape measure. I told him to go ahead.

“Well, I asked Patty about it and she said you two were just friends. She said there was nothing going on between you.”

I told him that was correct.

“Yeah, well, you guys have been going out, so I would feel better if I asked you if you had any objections.”

I asked him objections about what.

“About me taking her out.”

What? Chris, you’re not the kind of guy to ask before taking. At least that’s what you’ve always told me. What’s going on? I asked him what had happened with Julie.

“No go, Big Guy.”

I gave him some business. I said something about him not being able to rise to the occasion.

Chris shook his head. “Big Guy. Even if she were serious about that seven inches garbage, do you really think I’d tell her I had them just to go to bed with her?”

I told him that’s exactly what I thought he would do.

He stood up and put his visor on. “Well, that shows how little you know about me. Now, how about me taking Patty out? You sure it doesn’t bother you?”

I told him I was sure.

“Great. I owe you one, Big Guy.”

He left the office. I looked up at the office calendar. Mr. Shakey was on it in his white cook’s outfit and his handlebar mustache. He held a steaming pizza in his hands and over his head, in a cartoon talking balloon, was written, “Now dat’s a pizza!” The calendar dutifully told me the month was June.

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When I got out of work late that night the moon was hanging just on the horizon, slightly less full than it had been the night before. As I walked to my car I started to think about the ancient astronomers who considered the earth to be at the center of the solar system. Modern astronomers (who know better) call this a geocentric view of the universe. Ptolemy was the first guy to come up with the idea, and he said that the other planets went around the earth, in order outward: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Ptolemy also said that everything inside the orbit of the moon was composed of the four elements: air, earth, fire, and water; and was subject to change. It was the realm of us mortals and it was imperfect. Outside the moon was the ether, a perfect region where everything was changeless. The realm of the gods, as it were.

The problem was, of course, that everything out there wasn’t changeless. The seasons change the stars you see at night and the planets move in relation to the stars. The moon goes through its phases and the sun rises at a different time every day. But this guy Ptolemy was no fool. He saw all these things as cycles where, yes, they were changing, but they always changed the same way and they always went back to what they were before.

So everything in the heavens was a constant or a predictable pattern. The Ptolemites began to get used to the idea and they must have figured that that’s the way the gods wanted it. They’d get a little sleepy and not pay as much attention to the sky and—BANG! A dim star would flare up and be a bright star for a week, or maybe Jupiter would turn around and start heading in the other direction.

The point is that the Ptolemites had a hairy cat fit when these things happened. They only really paid attention to the world around them when something came along and erased their formulas from the blackboard.

And when I look back on it now, this is how I see all the people that I said weren’t really my friends, the people I said I just knew. They were there. They were in my life. I got used to them being there and I tended to ignore them until they did something I didn’t expect them to do, like Patty telling me she was going to miss me or Chris acting somewhat like a gentleman in considering any feelings I might have had for Patty. I don’t think I ever really noticed them before they did these things. I knew I would be going away soon, and that I would never really return for any length of time, and I guess I just didn’t think about what it would be like to get to know them. There wasn’t much point in my mind. I couldn’t pack them up in a trunk and take them out to school with me. I guess I never took off the mask because I didn’t want to go through the trouble of putting it back on again.

And do you know what? Now, when I look up at the night sky, I wonder what Ptolemy would have done if he had looked up one night and the stars were no longer there.

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