You think—when you’re looking for a fake ID and your sketchy science lab partner says, “I know a guy”—you know what you’re getting into.
Parts of it were right, so near the beginning I never questioned the integrity of the transaction. No more than expected, anyway.
Shady alley dealing? Check.
Shady character dealing behind a shady front? Check and check.
“I don’t understand why I have to come with you,” I said as Ock led us around the side of Lucky’s Wash & Dry.
Ock, who pretended his name wasn’t Octavius, let out a single, hollow laugh. The pebbly pavement crunched under our feet and ate his laugh with gravelly teeth.
“Why do you richies always think people like us are gonna do your dirty work for you?” Ock said.
“People like you… Ock,” I didn’t know how to tell him that, yeah, maybe I used to think about us in those terns—us, them—but that was before and not anymore, so instead I said, “Who’s this ‘guy’ you know? He cool?”
Ock shrugged like he always shrugged, like he couldn’t help but shrug, still taking long, slow strides just ahead of me so I had to skip every other step to catch up.
“I think he’s a Nopperabō,” said Ock.
We’d passed the dark alley’s halfway mark and I still saw no one.
Ock spun and started walking backward, face brighter than anything else in this light-trap alley. “Nopperabō,” he said. “Like, this ghost without a face. I mean, he has a face, but I’m always waiting for him to wipe his hand over his face and take it off. Creepy as shit. It’s a Japanese thing, Nopperabō, but, hell: America—land of the free and home of the immigrant, am I right?”
Ock’s face was bright, sure, but his voice had this quiet stealth, like wind through long field grass. I knew he was trying to creep me out. It was the dynamic of our close acquaintanceship since the seventh grade when I’d told him I’d had a dream where he chased me down with a syringe, trying to needle my eye and drain its juices.
Yes, he was trying to creep me out. It was working.
All the way through to the end of the alley, and no one. But Ock didn’t seem too concerned. He didn’t even seem to be looking. Past a couple sour-splattered dumpsters, Ock turned left onto the sidewalk proper and finally stopped us on the small stoop of a dark recessed door next to Lucky’s Hardware & Gardening. Yes, the same Lucky of Lucky’s Wash & Dry.
It was a small, hell-hole of a town.
Ock brought up a couple knuckles and rapped casually on the solid black door three times, but before he’d really finished, the door unlatched and opened a few inches. Ock pushed it open and went inside.
Only once I followed and went to close the door behind me did I see the dingy framed sign nailed eye level on the door, where red circus letters spelled out: Tito’s Fancy Dress.
The man, Ock’s “guy,” Tito, I presumed, was across the shop when we walked in, too far, almost, to have been able to make it to the door and back.
Maybe he was a ghost.
I could see what Ock meant.
The man had a face, of course, but he looked sallow and malnourished, though I got the feeling it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I got the feeling he could pack it in and in and in, and hold on to none of it. There was a look of unsated hunger in the man, so that even his eyes looked like they were trying to eat me up.
I didn’t want to be here any longer than necessary.
Here, despite the Fancy Dress signage, appeared to be a Halloween shop. Ock moved over to the man and began talking soft and low. I hovered near a wall with plastic amputated appendages on display. Three-pronged racks stood intermittently throughout the shop, the size of, I dunno, a moderate garden shed, each with plastic sealed bags yielding images of the contents of each: a slutty nurse, slutty nun, slutty devil, a witch, a slutty witch, ax murderer, murder victim. A smaller stand held props: plastic broad swords, plastic cowboy pistols, plastic cop pistols, archeologist’s whip (pleather), spats, felt fedoras, felt bowlers, vampire teeth, blood, facial scars.
Then, there was an entire wall dedicated to masks, all kinds. Muppet to murderer and everything in between.
I was gouging the vacant eyeholes of a squashed Yoda face when the man spoke to me.
“What exactly can I do you for?” The words, Anglo-shaped and coated in sleaze, made me consider never drinking alcohol ever, legal ID or not.
“None of this looks very fancy for a Fancy Dress shop.” I managed an ounce of bravado as Tito sucked his teeth and grimaced.
“Fancy dress innit fancy dress. It’s costumes. Obviously.” He gestured to the dim room, the red exit light cutting a scarlet line along the side of his angled face. “Now what is it you’re here for?”
I glanced at Ock leaning a hip against the checkout counter and chewing his thumb. Do your own dirty work, he seemed to be saying.
“Fake ID,” I said.
“What kind?” Tito said.
“What kind?” I said. Tito leered. Ock’s teeth clicked and ground against his thumbnail. “What kinds are there?”
Tito strode three lengths to a door behind the counter. A sign above it read EMPLOYEES ONLY. The door itself was a heavy, red curtain.
Tito reached out, and for a split second I thought he was reaching up to wipe away his face, but he only pulled the curtain aside and gestured me through.
The back room was filled with masks. Piled and teetering. Hung, askew. Balanced, angled, stacked, sheaved. Shelved. Everywhere.
Tito brought out a combination lockbox and set it on top of a glass case, like you’d see at a jeweler’s or pawn shop. He shadowed it and fiddled with the combination and clicked it open. I waited for a stack of plastic state IDs to appear. They didn’t. Tito closed the box after fiddling for a second more.
I looked over my shoulder for Ock but he wasn’t there. He hadn’t come back. I could still hear his incessant nail-biting through the curtain and everything though. I turned back to Tito, mustering my nerve.
“So?” I said, my voice cracking anyway.
“So?” Tito said. “So, choose.” He spread a hand to either side, palms up, as though holding the very air in place.
“Choose… but… choose what?”
“Choose—well what are you doing here—Ock, what are you doing here?” Tito called. He looked a little deflated, a little less ghostlike, a little more like a bemused, underfed shop owner. “Ock?”
“Ock?” I called now, moving back toward the curtain, reaching out to pull it aside, pull it aside and see Ock creeping there on the other side, trying to creep me out, creeping me out, but before my fingers could feel fabric, Ock shoved it aside and pushed his way through.
“You wanted a new ID,” Ock was saying, standing closer to me than he’d ever stood. “Nobody does it better.” Then he too held his hands out, palms raised, and I saw what they were playing at.
“Seriously? Ock.” I wasn’t nervous or scared or whatever anymore because I was annoyed. “Masks? Really? Why are you wasting my time—Is this more of the Us-Them thing, because you’re the one who started with that rhetoric, man.” I was already heading to the curtain-door when Ock cut me off.
“I’m not bullshitting you, Chris. This is totally legit. You’re usually pretty cool, so trust me. This is worth your time. Better than any fake ID.”
When I didn’t believe him right away, Ock repeated,” Trust me.”
I wasn’t sure that helped.
“I don’t get it.” I looked at Ock and Tito and the masks.
“Why you always bringing nubes, Ock?” Tito sighed. “I’ll get the starter mask,” and he walked to one corner and crouched low, peeling the top mask off a pile of identical faces. Faces—barely, I guess.
They reminded me of those old Greek theater masks—overwrought mouth, overlarge eyes, oversize everything with stylized coils of hair carved at the upper edges.
“How does this work?” I asked as Tito pushed the mask into my hands. It didn’t weigh as much as I expected. It hardly weighed anything at all.
“You put it on and veeolá,” Tito said blandly. “That’s $50.”
It was a lot for a mask, but not for a fake ID, which was what I’d brought the money for, so instead of thinking too hard on it, I forked it over. Ock trusted to bring me here. It’d be wrong somehow to snub it now.
“And I just put it on?” I repeated, watching Tito roll up my cash and pocket it.
“You just put it on.”
So I did.
First, I wore it around the house. When Mom didn’t say anything about it, I started wearing it out on errands, to work—the framing store on Beech Street—hanging out with friends.
No one said a thing about it, not really, like they couldn’t see the false face I wore over my real one, but they treated me differently. Like I had something to say that was worth listening to. I had valuable opinions and reasonable desires—desires that I was not only easily able to assert, but that people seemed happy to help me pursue.
The mask helped me get a raise. Terry promoted me to Custom Matte Specialist. There wasn’t even an opening. That wasn’t even a real position. I mentioned to Terry that I preferred matting and did the best job of anyone, so… veeolá.
When I started wearing the mask all day, every day, school and all, it was even more noticeable. Teachers that barely noticed me before were intrigued by my questions and invested in my opinions, and I found myself leading conversations in circles of raptly attentive people.
People gave me respect, so then I made sure I went on earning it. It all became awfully and incredibly easy.
And I figured, if that’s what a starter mask could do for me in a few weeks, what could a better one do for me?
“How much is this one?”
“$200,” said Tito. I’d come, same time, same place, no Ock, to see what more I could do for myself.
“No, I only have $100,” I said, no nerves, no problem, knowing Tito would be willing to help me out.
I hadn’t taken off the mask for the last three days, not even when I slept, so that when I went to take it off before coming to Tito’s, it wouldn’t come. Not so much like it was glued to my face as it was that I simply couldn’t find the edges. Part of me knew something was off about it, but I found that the bigger part of me wasn’t worried—didn’t really care.
Tito was the only one who seemed to see it at all. When his door had opened to me and I walked in, he’d said, back to me, not looking once at me, “You’ve grown into your starter well. But it’s not enough, is it?” He’d spun on his stool then, and for a second the table lamp next to him washed his features out into facelessness. A second only, and then my eyes adjusted to find his sunken ones.
Those eyes, they looked up at me now from the mask I’d just inquired about—a thin, manic thing in blues and grays and silver gilt—and Tito repeated, “$200. No less.”
“Oh.” I deflated a bit. He was the first person in weeks to say no to me. I didn’t know what to do next.
“Take that thing off and I can give you a $25 credit toward your next purchase.” Tito tilted his chin to indicate my face—my mask—lips stretched over his teeth in a grin.
“But I paid $50 for it.” It sounded less like an assertion and more like complaint and question combined.
“Service fee,” he replied, still grinning, and I wished he would reach up and wipe away his grin at least. I didn’t like looking at that thing.
“Besides, it won’t come off,” I said, too late, no longer on point, and I reached up to show him when my fingers, instead, found the edges easily. “Oh.”
“ ‘Oh’,” Tito mocked as I peeled the mask from my face with almost no effort at all. “We are who we pretend to be, don’t they say, Yank? But I knows the real you, so it’s my job to remind you you’re just pretending.”
“You don’t know who I am,” I said, and I shoved my mask into his chest, but it was heavier than I remembered and pushed him back harder than I meant.
“Aye,” Tito said, “but I know who you’re not. This,” he lifted a mask from the shelf near his shoulder, “this is more your speed. And your price range.”
“What is it?” I asked, reaching out for it. It was rounded, like a china doll, rosy-cheeked, lashed, tiny-eyed, small bow-lipped. Quaint.
“On-gen-oo,” Tito said. “$125.”
Ingénue. I’d heard the word before but I couldn’t tell anyone exactly what it meant. It usually referred to doe-eyed things that were adored, fawned over even, right?
That didn’t sound like bad business to me.
“Yeah, all right. I’ll take it.”
“Knew you would.” Tito handed it over, and I had it on before he’d tucked my five twenties into his front pocket.
“What was that last one anyhow?”
“Oh? … Oh.” Default starter, indeed.
“ ‘Oh’. Well aren’t you just the cutest thing?”
People were really sweet during my ingénue days—holding doors for me and smiling at me and smiling at me. Answering questions for me and asking if I need any help. I never seemed to want for anything.
No one let me.
It was nice, I suppose, but even with all the attentions I felt further away from everyone than ever, lifted up and up and away from them, looking down on the appled cheeks of their upturned smiling faces from atop the pedestal they’d put me on. It wasn’t the soap box of man, where people thought I had something to say worth listening to. Where a soap box lifts you up to be listened to, a pedestal lifts you up to be looked at and looked at and looked at and nothing else.
“Ingénue? Really? More my speed?”
I’d managed to peel my ingénue face off after fifteen long days. I’d had to set myself in front of the bathroom mirror and study my face—my mask—and discern its edges from the edges of my true face. I started with my ears but couldn’t remember if the mask had come with ears or if these were my own. It took ten minutes of tugging and digging in and around to realize my ears were my own.
“I want something cleverer than this,” I said now, throwing the crinkled-at-the-edges ingénue face on Tito’s glass-top counter.
“Cleverer?” Tito said with a single, sly eyebrow, but his accent shaped the word toward, “Cleverah?”
“I brought money this time. More money. Good money.” I’d stopped at my bank ATM and withdrawn max cash a couple times this week, prepared with 327 cash dollars in my pocket—including the leftover change from coffee with my ex.
Alex wanted to get back together with the first mask. More ardently with the second mask. I said no. Both times.
It felt good.
Tito went about collecting a cleverah mask for me. He had to pull out a ladder and climb until his weak brown hair scraped the ceiling. He walked straight at me, circumnavigated me and the counter, not sliding over the mask until he stood opposite me, jewel-bright case separating us.
I examined it. It reminded me of my starter mask. Already I liked it better, despite myself.
“What is it?” I wasn’t going on blind trust or privilege this time.
“ ‘Oh’ ?” Tito’s face opened into a mock circle of surprise. Then he chuckled. “I assure you, kid. This is the cleverest I’ve got. But a lot of people underestimate cleverness. It’s only $200, this one.” Tito paused, letting me consider this. “Interested?”
To which I said, “I want a money-back guarantee this time.”
“Oomph,” Tito hugged his gut as though I’d hit him, “that hurt—what was your name? Chris? My exchange program not working for you, Chris? Three masks, and all you’da technically spent woulda been $250 when I coulda gotcha for near $400. You’re practically robbing me. Tell you what—you don’t like this one—though I doubt that—I’ll waive the service fee and give you the entire $200 back—in store credit. That satisfy you?”
I placed my hand on the smooth apple-red cheek of this clever mask. It was pleasantly warm to the touch, like hot breath.
“Deal,” I said, peeling $200 from my wallet.
That devil, Tito.
Oh, I was clever all right. It was amazing and dark and thrilling. I had a way of getting everyone to do what I wanted. It didn’t always involve truth—but it was always better if it did. Some twisted version of it, anyway.
People would promise me things—it was amazing, I could’ve bargained for their souls should I want—and all I had to do was pit them and their desires against everyone else’s. People proved to be so weak in their desires, it was almost hard not to take advantage of it.
Need a fake ID?
No need. I have five guys who can each get you a keg, free of charge, so long as you let them come to the party.
Don’t worry about it. I can get someone to take those pesky SATs for you, free of charge, so long as you set the right nerd up on the right date, which is easy enough when Victoria owes you a couple favors when you didn’t turn her in for stealing those Express pants at the mall.
Need a pair of Express pants?
It took a solid month and my baby sister saying in her offhand would-be non-confrontational manner, “Man, you’ve really become an asshole, haven’t you?” for me to decide I wasn’t this face.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror again that same night, settled to peel this one off like the last, but when I look at my reflection there was no hint of the mask, and I couldn’t remember if this was what I had looked like before I put on the mask, or after.
Next day, I was pounding on Tito’s door before it was even properly dark, and when the door gave a little beneath my fists I realized the shop itself was still open. I lunged inside and found Tito on his stool behind the check-out counter, scribbling in a notebook. The shop was empty but for us.
I started talking before I’d reached him, panicked, and the bastard didn’t look up until I’d finished.
“I told you,” he said. “I told you we are who we pretend to be. It’s not my fault you weren’t careful.”
“I was careful,” I retorted, even if I knew it was crap. “Help me get it off—you said you could do that—you said you could help me remember.”
“And yet you’ve remembered well enough to know to come here.” Tito leaned his head back against the wall behind him so I could see up his large, Anglo nostrils. “I thought I’d seen the last of you, I did.”
“Well, I’m here. And we had an agreement. Help me.”
“Aye, we did.” Tito stood and came around to me. “Store credit only, yeah?” He tilted his head this way and that, examining the scratches I was sure to have around my hairline and ears and chin where I’d dug in my nails to no avail.
“I want my money back,” I said fiercely, a bit of my new face breaking through the panic. “Cash. Or I’ll call the cops on this little black market situation you’ve got going on here.”
At this, Tito laughed, a full, head-thrown-back, hands-on-his-gut sort of laugh, a short, sharp thing that ended with his eyes locked on mine. His eyes looked less like eyes than ever, his face less like a face, more like the idea of a face. Eyeholes, two dots for nostrils to breathe through, an overlarge mouth carved into a leer. Masklike, but I wondered if it was, actually. I wondered if you took it off, whether you’d find anything underneath.
“This mask won’t come off, you say? So, no, I don’t think you will be calling the coppers.”
My hands went again to pry the mask off my face, but halfway through the motion, they changed course for Tito.
“You will take this off,” I said, my hands finding his throat. My hands throttling him. I was close enough to see the veins in this eyes bulge. I was close enough to smell the breath that caught in his throat. It smelled like fear and cigarettes. I relished the rattling air struggling to get through.
Only when his eyes rolled back and he’d slumped to the floor did I step back and consider what I was doing.
What I’d done. I’d done that. I’d throttled a man. Choked him.
And enjoyed it.
Or was it me?
This mask—it was all this mask. I had to get it off.
I rushed to Tito’s shop door and threw the bolt. Then I flew past Tito’s body and to the back room where I rummaged through shelves, toppling stack after stack of faces, not knowing what I was looking for.
The glass case—I crashed my elbow through it, impatient to find the key, but it held only jewel-encrusted and gilt faces.
The lockbox—it took five minutes to find it on a bottom shelf behind a pile of equine faces and then another ten minutes of throwing and stomping and prying to get it open.
A deck of plastic photo IDs cascaded onto the bare concrete floor. Fake IDs.
Kneeling in a pile of them, this great, primordial bellow escaped me, ripping at my throat, and I dug my fingers in around my jaw until I felt the warm seep of blood from broken skin. My neck grew warm and wet with red.
And still, it wouldn’t come off, this face.
This face, it was mine now.
“There is one thing you can do.”
It was Tito, standing in the open-curtained doorway, bracing himself against the wall with one hand and massaging his throat with the other. “There is one thing you can do,” he repeated, voice a grated rasp.
“What?” My own voice was a cresting, breaking wave of panic, and I already knew I would do whatever Tito told me.
In response, he plucked a mask from the ocean of faces around us and held it out to me.
My eyes—were they mine?—asked him the question.
“You seem pretty convinced that you’re meant to be a good person. This”—he pushed the mask at me again—“will help you along with that. Introduce a little something to balance out the devil in you.”
I wanted to tell Tito I was looking at the devil already, but bruises had splashed themselves dark and blotchy across his throat, so instead, I held out my hands to accept my new face.
“So, I just put it on?” I said.
“You just put it on,” rasped Tito.
I was a Good Samaritan for as long as it took me to turn over all the illicit secrets I’d collected beneath my previous mask.
Not previous. Concurrent. It was still on, under this new face.
My honesty and good intentions got quite a few people detentions, one expulsion, and plenty of unfriending. I got myself an in-school suspension.
My honesty and good intentions kept it from being another expulsion, sure, but I didn’t do myself any other favors as Good Samaritan.
Closest thing to another favor was that I decided to wait until the 5-day suspension was over before visiting Tito’s Fancy Dress again. I didn’t think a non-Good Samaritan version of me would be able to sit sanely through those five days otherwise.
“I appreciate the gesture,” I said next time I saw Tito, placing my Good Samaritan face on his counter. This one had been unsettlingly easy to remove. “But I need a little nuance. Clever, not too clever. Good, not too good—You know what? Just pull everything in my price range”—I held up a fan of $300—“and I’ll do the shopping.”
Tito eyed me, paused, but complied.
After fifteen minutes he’d laid out an array of masks over half the floor and he was still going back to the shelves for more.
“How much longer?” I asked.
“How long do you have?” Tito wore the mask of a smile, but really, it was smirk.
“How many more?” I demanded.
“Few thousand,” he said and shrugged.
I scoffed. “You don’t have that many in here.” I was starting to feel deliciously sadistic again and while part of me wondered whether I should put on my Samaritan mask until I had a safe replacement, the other part of me wondered what I could do to Tito to make him… compliant.
“Just stop,” I said, partly to Tito, mostly to myself. “This is fine.”
It wasn’t, not entirely, because what if the Right Mask was still on the shelves somewhere? But there were too many, so my choice out of 1, 2, 3, … 89 would have to do.
I paced the length and depth of the faces, careful to step between them—spiked ones, reflective silver ones, ones with raffia hair, ones with fangs, red and blue split ones, rainbow ones, one so deeply black I couldn’t make out any of its features—not even its edges.
I dog-eared a few in my mind, ones that felt almost like mirrors, but in the end I could choose only one. I wouldn’t have money enough for another face until my next paycheck—or two.
“Are you done yet?” Tito drawled.
“Yes,” I said, making a snap decision. “Yes, this one.” I lifted the pointed canine face of a fox by its snout and held it up to the dim light. A modest matte rust color. Dark, pointed ears and snout and coarse, tufted whiskers to each cheek. Its empty eyes seemed to watch me, tentative but patient.
“Yes,” I said again, “this one.”
Fox was good for me. He was, but he felt more like a friend and less like myself, I think.
He was clever, but not too clever. Sneaky, but not conniving. Sleek and unseen, when warranted.
But he was lonely and serious. Survivalist.
I wanted more than to survive.
I spent my next two paychecks on Artist, but I became a self-involved dramatist.
Next, there was Philosopher, who helped me think things I’d never thought, but Philosopher was pompous and ineffectual. A lot of talk, very little action.
Farceur, joker, wag—because I missed laughter, but I made about as good a joker as I did ingénue. It was lonely.
Each mask was, in its own way.
Ock ebbed and flowed from my life according to our usual acquaintanceship—we were still lab partners after all—but he’d tended toward the ebb these past five months.
“Ock,” I said, catching up to him in the hall one day, my farceur self making me smile it, “I need your help.”
“Nope,” he said, banging through the bathroom door, not deigning even to look at me. I followed.
He spun in front of the sinks to face me. “No,” he said. “No money, no favors, no whatever, Chris. No trouble. Thanks.”
“No, Ock, that’s not what this is.” I didn’t know why, but I kept my voice down. We had the bathroom to ourselves, but who knew for how long. “Different kind of help,” I said. “I swear.”
Ock shifted his weight but waited.
“This thing at Tito’s—wait, hold on—I want it over, that’s all. You brought me there, you gotta know something. I want the mask to end all masks. I want it done.” My voice was serious, but the farceur in me said this while catching Ock’s eyes first in the mirror, then in person, then in the mirror, then in person, then in the mirror—because that part of me thought it was funny.
It was funny.
But I had to focus.
“What mask are you wearing?” I asked. It was a question that had prodded me incessantly the past few months, not necessarily because I wanted to be Ock, but maybe if we compared notes…
“I’m not wearing a mask,” said Ock.
“But, Tito’s, and how did you know? Did you ever?” I said quickly.
Ock dragged his fingernails over his chin. “Yeah, the starter. Couple others. Quit a while ago. Decided to be me for a while, you know?” He turned and slung his backpack to the floor. “Don’t go back.” He shrugged, like the answer was obvious, and reached for his fly. “Now, do you mind? I gotta take a leak.”
“Here’s all my savings plus my last paycheck—show me everything you got. Everything.”
Same day, and I was at Tito’s right after school. Ock could be himself all he wanted. I needed a mask. I hadn’t been myself for so long, I wasn’t sure I remembered who that was. If I wasn’t worth remembering, it wasn’t worth being me. I could be sure of that much.
“Everything?” asked Tito lightly.
I had $768 and a jar of quarters that was probably another hundred dollars all by itself.
Tito had thousands of masks. Maybe thousands of thousands. He didn’t seem limited to these visible shelves.
“Well, what exactly are you looking for? Describe it to me. I’ll know where it is. You don’t have the time to look at all your options. Trust me.”
As though I could trust him. He made stupid sense though, even if I couldn’t tell him jack about what I was looking for. I was trusting I’d know it when I saw it. I hesitated for too long.
“Look, kid, I promise I can help you, but you gotta be part of this.” Tito brought his hands up to his sides again, this time in a gesture of defeat, and let them slap to his denim thighs.
That was the problem, wasn’t it? I had to be part of it. I did.
I started describing the things I liked about each of the masks—the confidence and self-respect, the optimism, the compassion, the ability to see people’s secrets, the sleek, mysterious cleverness, the art, the intellect, the laughter—“but it was always missing… something…” That’s why I cycled through so many faces. That’s why I looked for a new one now.
“I… only have one that’s gonna do all that and get you your je ne sais quoi.” Tito leaned on the glass case and propped himself up with his elbows. “You’re not gonna like it.”
“What? …What?” I said again when Tito just stood there surveying me.
He reached up and I was sure he was reaching to take off his own face. I took a hurried step back, not wanting to look but unable to turn away.
He turned his head a little and reached behind his ear. When his hand came away, it clutched a cigarette, which Tito then brought to his mouth—which was still there—and lit it.
I let out a shaky laugh. “Holy shit, Tito—what?”
Tito’s face got that mild look of surprise it seemed to wear so often, half-mocking. He gave a single laugh of his own and said, “My name ain’t Tito, mate. It’s Stan.” And without any further explanation, he strode through the curtain to the front of the shop.
I had just started to follow when he was back. He was holding a mask. And he’d been right.
I didn’t like it.
“But that came from up front. With the real costumes.”
Tito—Stan—puffed on his cigarette. I wasn’t about to tell him that was illegal. My Good Samaritan days were over. “ ‘Real’ costumes?” he said. “What makes them any more or less real, eh? This curtain?” He gestured at it. “No, this is the only one I got that fits your specifications. I’ve also got a half and three-quarters style, if you’re looking to show a little skin.” He winked.
“But it’s gray.”
Tito scoffed. Stan scoffed. “It’s not gray. It’s blank.”
It was gray, whatever he said, this man who wasn’t Tito. Expressionless with proportionally human-sized holes for eyes and nostrils and a thin slit between two average lips for a mouth. The contours of a face, vaguely, but with no defining characteristics.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“It’s sort of… a kit,” Stan said, laying the mask on the glass counter, so that its eyes and nose and mouth were lit from beneath. “A ‘build your own,’ as it were.”
“Why would I want to build my own? You’ve got a millions masks here”—I threw my hands up at the room—“You’ve got to have something.”
Stan pressed his lips into a thin smile. “Not a million. And none but this that are gonna do for you exactly what you want.”
“But why is it gray?”
Stan pondered this for a moment. “Well… you spent some time as Artist, so maybe you’ll remember this—cameras, prefab, automated ones, they want to light a frame having the bulk of the image in midtones, grayscale grays, right? Aperture, exposure, whatever—they’ll adjust themselves to get as much gray into an image with just hints of highlight and darkest shadow, right? Because the world is mostly grays, innit? Tonally speaking, of course.”
“Of course.” It was my turn to mock. Aperture, exposure …Who was this guy?
“Or drawing”—Stan went on, reading my face—“start on a white page and it takes a lot of effort to get any nuance of depth. Start on a black page, same thing, right? Start in the middle—it’s easier to know where to put your highlights and your shadows, innit?” He looked at me, expectant.
“Who are you?” I said.
Stan shook his head a little and snuffed out his cigarette on the glass-top counter. “I’m Stan. Who are you?”
I had to give it to him. Stan had me there.
“You’re sure this is the one?” I asked, fingering the blank mask next to the ashy stub of his cigarette.
“That or go without.” Stan smiled like he already knew my answer.
“Cost?” I said, picking it up and examining the thin elastic strap that would hold it to my face.
“Up front? $1.99 plus tax.” Stan still managed his sleazy Tito grin. “Long run? Whatever you decide to put into it.”