Copyright (c) 2008 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved
Yeah, so I had some tough luck as a young teen. I hung out with a bad crowd. We weren’t the Hells Angels; we were more like the naughty kids on TV who always get into trouble — we were Dennis-the-Menace sort of rascals. We would shimmy beneath the broken grate bars and clamber into the storm sewer, and wander around in the subterranean maze of concrete tunnels to set off cherry bombs. My weirdness was deserved though — I earned it from the oddities of my family. Let’s face it, I grew up with a family quirky in many ways: not just with the dime-a-dozen crazy aunt and uncle that everybody has. Both sides of the family showed strangeness in many places straight down to my mom: an eclectic collector of all things spiritually odd.
Tattoos completely obscured both of Uncle Ted’s arms. Time had rather blurred the artwork — the purples and reds and black creations were various dragons and symbols, flowing mementos of India ink. I remember going over to visit my cousin to find Uncle Ted in the kitchen wearing a set of headphones, rocking his head to and fro, riffing an over-the-top air guitar. I don’t think he actually played a real guitar — he thought he was being, I don’t know, “cool.”
My cousin Cindy was a bit, uh, peculiar. Vastly overweight, when you looked at her you somehow got the impression of an inverted pear: overweight more on the top than on the bottom. At first glance her facial features seemed somewhat mongoloid, although she was actually a sweet and intelligent person. For some reason however she had a habit — or an addiction — to always try and win things advertised as “free.” Take the metro downtown on Saturday and get a free poster. She would go. It wasn’t like she had to head downtown for any particular undertaking — she only wanted the free poster. Buy our magazine and get free ringtones for your phone. She would buy the magazine, even though she didn’t have a cellphone. Go into a gym and fill out a form to win a free membership. She went to fill out the form. As if she might /actually/ go to the gym. Right.
But my dear sweet mom lived in a world all her own. I guess her curiosities sprouted from reading various travel magazines — one thing led to another and over the course of a year she started goading my father to head out for their own international trips. Mexico. France. Ireland. India. Unlike most families where the globetrotting parents treat upon their little darlings a variety of knickknacks and souvenirs of dubious value, from the four corners of the Earth my mother chose to deliver artifacts that were both obscure and alarming.
At first it was various fabric smashups: sectioned wall hangings of knit landscapes; large fractured terrains to split and rearrange. These creations looked more like a cloth interpretation of leftover dinners that got tossed into the restaurant dumpster. Stuffed tubes of fabric resembling large elephant trunks intertwined with wormlike fibers that twisted into phantasmagorical creations of strife and angst. On her next vacation she returned with small pre-Columbian statues with mocking expressions of grief and contortions resembling gnomes post-castration. She sprinkled a living-room side table with little clay shards of broken heads.
And then she became smitten with masks.
First it was simple enough — a paper-mache mask from Venice. Interestingly colorful, it sprouted a series of glowing dots for eyebrows and blushed cheeks over a yellowish white face. Vaguely feminine. It was somewhat clownish, but with the slightest suggestion of cynicism. Smiling. I think. I suppose she presumed that having it on the wall above the side of my bed would make me a happier child. Or else maybe this was her way of leaving a hint that she wanted /me/ to be a more sophisticated clown.
Then she returned with a tin mask from Mexico — a stark and screaming creature with his metallic hair ablaze in points and a long tongue curled outward and downward. She placed him above the other mask on the wall. At night he would scream to me: save me from the Spaniards! Stop the Chichimeca from pounding on my tin! Ouch, stop cutting me with shears! His screams were as sharp as his tongue and at the same time tarnished like his tin.
Meanwhile around the sides of her smiley mouth the dotted eyebrow mask sprouted indentations of dimples. She was laughing at the antics of tin-mask — giggling at how he made such a big deal about his supposed pain when, after all, he was just a mask. She was also chuckling at me for being upset about the random complaints and ramblings of a piece of tin. I think. Deep inside I wondered if Dotty Eyebrows was some sort of serial killer that had been reformed by joining the life of the circus… that her blush and whiteface obscured a deep sadism.
Tin Mask was not too pleased with Dotty Eyebrows the cynical sadist. He would scream at her in Spanish.
In the meanwhile, the fabric creations started to react as if they were in some sort of convulsive plot to spook me. Maybe they would unravel and reravel each night, the tines and threads that made up each trunk separating apart and stretching out across the room in my sleep. They wouldn’t tie me up or even touch me — they would instead linger close enough to allow me to be bothered by a sense of their hovering presence. Of course they would snap back into place when I awakened each morning. I was positive that the masks were egging them on.
Vaguely tolerant, most of the time I tried to shrug them off without revealing that I was ignoring them. I would nod my head occasionally at a pause in their bickering while trying studiously to tune them out. Hey, hung up on the wall with nails they weren’t going anywhere; I could always go outside and play in the sunshine with friends or enjoy the swingset. After a while though their mere presence began to wear on me: the two masks would be waiting for me when I returned home from school every afternoon, watching over me as I did my Algebra or read my English Lit, one screaming and one tittering. Or perhaps she was snickering.
For the most part my friends seemed unaware of mom’s weird decorative talents. When they came over we would set up the slot-car track or take out the legos and they would be oblivious to the wall decor. I never once thought to myself that they headed off to the playground afterwards and chatted amongst themselves: “hey, what about Jeff’s room, eh? Some crazy junk on the walls, yeah? Didn’t that tin guy freak you out?” It never even once crossed my mind.
Then mom visited Africa and returned with a black ebony and mother-of-pearl mask: a spirited fellow with a long, convex shaped head, deep piercing wild eyes, and ears with eight holes running up each side. His sleek white mother-of-pearl eyebrows swept up in a mood of arrogance, his mouth frozen in a phrase of advice. As she hung it on the wall I raised my eyes to her and ventured to say my first couple of words on the subject.
“Collecting masks, huh?” She didn’t quite grasp the undertone of consternation in my voice. “Yes, honey, aren’t they wonderful?”
Doctor’s offices can be weird places. Of course in one sense the doctor is there to help you, but despite his good intentions the offices themselves still tend to be spooky and sterile. In again with my mom in tow to chat about what they might do to me next, we came to discuss when I might go under for some more surgery. Hey it was no big deal, I am what I am and I guess I had gotten what I deserved. Frankly I could care less about how I looked. Surgery was always like going to sleep and then waking up afterwards high on drugs, just another cool and bizarre experience to me. Each time they finished I looked a bit different than the time before.
But the worst part about visiting the doctor was that I would get the day off from school — it didn’t make sense to interrupt a class during the middle of the day, so after the doctor appointment mom would take me home to sit around and entertain myself. For most kids this would be as good as getting a free day at Disneyland. For me however, since all of my friends were at school, I ended up back in my bedroom around high noon all alone with my books, my legos, my matchbox cars, and my FM radio. All alone. With the masks.
At first I thought to myself, hey, I’ll just ignore them. I’ll drive a few matchbox cars around the room, set up some kind of enactment, create a small city, spuff off the masks. But they were in a chatty mood and I had intervened upon their high conversations: “hey what’s the kid doing home at this time of day”. So I thought it might be better to calm them with some music or something. Since my usual fare of David Bowie or the Rolling Stones might rile them up I scanned around the radio dial for a station with some classical music. The first station I reached seemed classical enough: Barry Manilow, Liberace, sort of easy listening with a tinge of classical coloration. Enough schmaltz to make me throw up. Something that my mother would listen to.
As my diversionary tactic seemed to mostly appease the masks I settled back onto my bed with a book to read. After about five minutes I could feel the masks staring into my brain… I could sense the three of them scheming. They began to chat amongst themselves: “I don’t know about you, screamy guy, but I loooove the looks of this room, don’t you agree?” Dotty Eyebrows said, somewhat squinching one dotted eyebrow down and raising the other dotted eyebrow up.
“Ahhhhh!” yelled Tin Mask, “it’s amazing when the sun is reflecting off my pointy hair! It’s better than the fireworks on Diez y Seis de Septiembre! It’s even more amazing when the older brunette gal comes in and gives us the feather duster! Ayyy carumba, better than frijoles refritos and a Corona!”
“Bah” chimed in the Pearled Ebony mask, “you are too swayed by corporeal pleasures. A happy soul is not derived from sun and feather tickles. You need the smoke of the Cypress, meditation under the cool waters of the Lualaba. You need to find the inner peace that comes from living in harmony with the plants and the water.”
“Ahhhhh!” yelled Tin Mask, “stop jacking us around with your horsefeathers of voodoo-man philosophy! You are like a piñata full of junky hard candy. Empty and hollow and full of sugary promises!”
Clearly this music wasn’t terribly soothing to my hanging wall friends. I got up and pressed the scan button on the radio a couple more times. Something wafted in dimly like Mozart — a bit of a pleasing, relaxing, harpsichord and flute sort of thing. The masks settled into a rather quiet hypnotic trance.
I pressed on with my English Lit and as I lay back on my bed the quiet rhythms of the music blended in with the pastoral reading assignment; I drifted off with the sublime silence of the masks into a quasi-world of partial dreams. I was in a hotel by the beach deep inside of a comfortable room — Hawaii? Jamaica? Fiji? The salt air gently blows the diaphanous curtains about; a bowl on the table entices me with pineapple slices and broken coconut cusps. A soft fuzzy mask on the wall talks to me: go ahead my friend, have some coconut, have some pineapple, go for a swim in our nice pool, you will meet some beautiful women lounging and gathering our cleansing sunbeams into their tan. I smile, swiping the curtains aside to reveal the lovely panoramic view over the ocean. As I gaze out over the distant green waves I hear the voice of a woman, softly at first, then louder. “Odd of you to be listening to classical music, dear,” my mom says from the doorway as I spring back up in my bed. “Hrmmmph” I grunt in acknowledgment, fishing around my chest for the book that folded down.
“I just thought I would try something new,” I say once I become partway coherent. “It’s nice,” mom comments while Dotty Eyebrows has a guffaw. Pearled Ebony raises one eyebrow and Tin Mask coils his tongue up and down in time with the music. I glance up and briefly give the masks a dirty look.
About a week later I came home from school to discover yet /another/ mask peering down at me. Wow this was an odd little baby — something vaguely American Indian — covered with shells and fringed with colorful small feathers, with feathers hanging from its earlobes, and even more feathers for eyebrows. I sat at my desk, opened my Algebra book, and peered up at Feather Face for a full half an hour until mom stepped into my room to break my eye-to-feather combat. “Do you like my new mask dear?” mom asked rhetorically. “Eh,” I began, but before I could say anything the roar of her vacuum drowned me out. The masks however took the opportunity from the noise to generally be obnoxious by winking at each other, wiggling their ears, and flapping their earlobes. Oy. “Mom, stop buying masks” I yelled over the din of the Hoover. She either didn’t hear me or pretended not to notice.
That night though I knew I was in trouble. You see, the masks /had/ heard me. I pulled the sheet up over my head — what else was I supposed to do? Now the masks had my number: they knew that I disapproved of their shenanigans and near to getting up the gumption to actually do something about it by broaching the subject with my mom. They could tell this from what I had said when the Hoover was running, but also because, I had come to believe, they could read my thoughts directly. I suspected that they were now agents for my mom: her secret spies. Maybe she had planted small cameras or microphones within them. Maybe they told her what they saw while I was away at school and she stayed home folding clothes.
In my dreams I am running… I am fleeing from disembodied heads — cannibals are chasing me with diagonal screaming pigtails, flailing shrunken heads from previous victims, their faces merged with images of my former teachers. I awake in damp sheets and in a cold sweat. The masks are invisible in the darkness of my room but I can feel them staring into the back of my brain, drilling holes into my dreams.
Although I am overly tired I am quite relieved to get to school in the morning. It seems like an escape from prison, an escape to freedom from the constant surveillance of my room. I am trying to concoct a way that I could live at school, perhaps by sneaking into the cafeteria after lunch (missing my last couple of periods) where I might sleep on the floor at night. I could awaken in the early evening and steal some soggy pudding out of the school refrigerator for dinner. But after my last class I walk home with my melancholy anyway.
I have another plan. I will do my homework in the living room and sleep on the sofa. Sure, why not. I plop down on the sofa, throw open my algebra book, kick off my tennis shoes, and put my feet up on the coffee table. Hey life isn’t so bad… I have a refuge on the couch — I can just sleep here tonight. I am busily immersed in factoring a quadratic equation when I wiggle my feet and feel something hard on the table. I look down beyond my toes to… well what the hell is that?
It is sort of rounded, hard, and black. It looks exactly like… somebody’s butt. I’m sorry but that is what it looks like — as if some big black dude with a large muscular butt decided to bend over for a spanking and instead of that, somebody took his butt and rounded out the other side and placed it right here, in wood, on the living room table. I stare at it for a few more minutes with a rather blank mind. I’m supposed to do Algebra with somebody’s big butt on the table?
Completely shaken by the large rump on the table, I pick up my school books and head back to the discomfort of my room. “Hey” I say to the masks, “you’ll never believe this, but my mom bought a big black butt and placed it on the living room table.” Tin Mask stops curling his tongue, Dotty Eyebrows raises both of her dotty eyebrows, and Pearled Ebony breaks out in a wide grin. Feathery Shell guy holds his feathers stock still. “Hey man,” Tin Mask offers, “you’re mom is one crazy lady.” I raise my eyebrows and nod quietly in agreement. Dotty Eyebrows chimes in, “eh, but is it a nice looking butt?” I am too young to appreciate her inquiry. Pearled Ebony just continues his wide grin, which is starting to make me wonder about him.
Mom walks past my door with a “hello dear.” “Mom?” I ask, “What is that thing on the living room table?” She pauses, folds some towels into a hallway closet, and then turns back at my doorway. “Huh? What thing dear?”
“The thing that looks like, I don’t know, somebody’s rear end….”
For a moment mom tries to sort out the visual description with however she has categorized her own decorating. “Oh,” she continues, once the light-bulb goes on, “that’s a polished Coco De Mer, from Africa.” So like that is somehow going to be a help for me I suppose? She could have said anything random in Swahili and it would have pretty much been as helpful. It still looks like a big tush on the table to me.
Then mom changes the subject, “did I tell you about Aunt Beatrice?” I lift my shoulders in a shrug and shake my head. “She is seriously ill dear and in the hospital.” Mom pauses for a moment to consider whether or not she should continue. Actually Aunt Beatrice is not my aunt — she is mom’s aunt: my great-aunt. In total I’ve seen her maybe a dozen times in my life. Do I care if she is ill? Not particularly. As mom decides that is all she has to say she heads off to the next closet to replace whatever else she has folded.
“Ah yes,” Pearled Ebony finally decides to speak, “Coco De Mer, a beautiful palm tree from the islands of Seychelles, one of the favorite antidotes of our medicine men.” I purse my lips — it’s so nice to know that one of the alien residents above my bed is practiced in the arts of medicinal witchcraft. Just in case I should need a poison dart.
A couple weeks later I am off for another appointment with the plastic surgeon. After we have been driving in silence for a while mom turns to me and says “I heard that Aunt Beatrice passed away this morning. God bless her, she was 85.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, although I don’t have particular feelings about it one way or the other. We sit in silence a few moments longer. Mom feels some kind of need to discuss the matter some more: “I think they will have a memorial service on Saturday. I wonder if she left her nieces anything in her will?” She turns to look at me to check my reaction. I yawn. After a few more moments of driving she adds “I suppose that I should put together a will too. You never can tell when something might happen.” Yeah, but at the moment we’re driving to talk to the plastic surgeon about what he is going to do to my face — I really could care less mom about who gets the furniture when you die.
“How long do I have to keep going to the doctor mom?” I changed the subject to something more to my own interest. “Well,” my mom hesitated, “I suppose it depends upon how things go, if we are satisfied with the results, how much it costs, stuff like that.” I had never heard mom refer to the cost before so I was a bit taken aback. I really didn’t want to be ugly the whole rest of my life.
Now that I’m an adult I guess that overall I can’t complain about how things worked out. The visit to the surgeon after aunt Beatrice died turned out to be the last operation that I needed. I don’t look like Brad Pitt, but I can pass now for your normal-looking working-class adult. Of course mom did put together a will and mailed me a copy once I was out on my own. She split things fairly evenly between me and my sister… she stipulated that I, naturally, would be most happy to take possession of the masks. When the opportunity comes for an estate sale though, I suspect that the masks may be the first set of mementos that I’ll unload.